We had a cold, wet May which meant the grass grew tall.
Then we had a hot, dry June which meant we were in for it this summer.
Lightning struck several dry places in the western part of the state on July 24th and ever since then the Rice Ridge fire has burned and taken on a life form of its own outside our community of Seeley Lake.
Initially it wasn’t a big concern and for the two weeks I was chilling out in a cool Canadian ice rink nobody had much to say about this fire. The night we drove west, though, back from North Dakota, and we saw the plume rising and growing from behind our Horseshoe Hills mountain range, everything changed.
The photo above was taken the first day we were back and whacking at balls on the local golf course.
The front nine provides an excellent view of the entire fire and the mountains it has marched across immediately behind our town. It also gave us an alarming perspective as to how quickly things changed during a simple round of golf.
It became clear that the fire was out of control and much of our town was put on pre-evacuation. Several friends who live by the airport (at the far right of the angry smoke seen above) just left. They packed up their kids, pets, important papers, and photo albums and they got out of town.
The golf course closed for a day due to the pre-evacuations as well as the hazardous air quality which was worsened by the fact we had another large, pre-evacuation-causing fire burning almost as quickly to the west of town.
Alistair and I have keys to the cart barn, where we keep Norman, so we still went out to play. We saw a couple of other club members as well and we all watched the sky darken and the smoke plumes change during another simple round of golf.
Traffic was a steady stream as people drove south down highway 83 past the golf course that afternoon and while our farm wasn’t immediately threatened we both felt a sadness at the lack of control one has during this type of situation.
And finally, as we stood on the long fairway of the ninth hole, the air support that was so badly needed and likely saved much of our community and our airport arrived over our heads.
Planes to spot, drop water and drop retardant buzzed overhead. Single and twin rotor helicopters whacka-whacka-ed in the skies. The Canadian super-scoopers who dove into Seeley Lake one behind the other in a choreographed routine that was witnessed by hundreds stayed for a few days and flew for hours on end to pour water on this angry beast. And a famous orange converted DC10 flew out of Helena with bright red fire retardant to dump where it could.
Big Orange flies over our farm when he’s called to action so I have been able to watch him from our front yard as well as from the front nine. He lumbers along and takes well over an hour when he has to fly back to refuel and refill but its a thing of beauty to watch.
He flies behind a little guy who puffs out what looks like smoke where Big Orange is supposed to dump. The two planes fly up and down the hillside and into canyons and gullies and the red powder falls when and where its supposed to, all in an effort to block the spread of the monstrous fire.
Despite the hundreds of people who came to work this fire and the amazing work of air support the Rice Ridge fire of 2017 continued to spread. The driving range has become a viewpoint for many in town and it gives a great perspective of how much land has been consumed.
The fire today has burned over 15,000 acres, which is nothing compared to other fires within the state this year or over the course of history but those acres have pretty much been immediately around our town.
The mountaintop on the very right in the above photo has the Morrell Outlook station on top, which is the same mountain and outlook seen from our back yard, on the other side.
And while its comforting to know that’s a few miles away, and its comforting to see the bright red flame retardant covering the ground up there, all along the ridge top, its still kind of eerie knowing you have a big assed fire that close to home.
Its also somewhat comforting knowing that they are using our meadow to stage helicopter pickups for both water and retardant but even that is a little freaky, too.
Freaky but super cool at the same time, if that’s possible.
My neighbors and I have had front row seats to a free air show and I am amazed at how much of an organized production its been.
The Chinook and the single rotor Sykorski fly both water and retardant to the fire. Last Wednesday I got to watch them fly back and forth all morning as they came and went every 10 minutes or so.
I waved every single time I watched them (which was several) because I want the pilots to know I appreciate them. Even if they can’t see me I want to be doing any little thing I can to make someone who is working so hard to save a town they don’t live in smile.
The fire has been only 10% contained since crews really began to attack it. The terrain is, in places, inaccessible and thanks to the high winds we had the past 2 days even back-burning has been impossible (the old, ‘fight fire with fire’ saying has its origins in truth.)
We have a road behind us in the Clearwater Lakes drainage that connects to Seeley Lake around by the airport. We snowmobile that road in the winter and pause by the lakes and another road that branches off and up to the Morrell Outlook for photos.
That road has apparently been widened drastically by work crews and is a focal point for stopping this beast of a fire. Many fire workers and much equipment is up there right now digging tremendous trenches and removing dead, fallen trees that cover the ground and would act as fuel to push the fire towards our meadow.
I know that because they were all suddenly in our meadow on Friday evening as my friend who just arrived from Canada for the night and I were driving into town for supper and suddenly tankers, trucks, machinery, huge rigs and several dozen men in yellow shirts and green pants were all over the place.
They were there because winds had blown the fire up and they had no idea where it was coming from or going and they figured they only had one chance to get out of the drainage if it was going towards them.
It had looked frightening from town that morning on the golf course and even worse when I got home that afternoon.
Granted, it was mostly moving East, which is the goal because the Bob Marshall Wilderness is that way and that’s the only thing that way.
When I took the dogs up the driveway for a better view I wasn’t surprised that a few friends had messaged me asking if I needed help getting out or a place for the pets and I to get to.
I knew my friend was visiting and could help evacuate and that most everything that is important is lined up in our foyer in boxes in case I have to make a move.
And The Dragon is hooked up to the Road Warrior and there are irreplaceable items already inside and the cat crates are by the door in the garage and sealed bags of dog and cat food are also loaded inside the rig along with leashes, dishes, my skates and a pink bag of our important documents.
I doubt it will come to that even though I watched from our kitchen sunroom last night as the outlook became engulfed in smoke and wasn’t visible from this side well until darkness.
It was, as it turned out, a controlled back-burn that would have been nice to know about but folks on the town side of the mountain shared pictures of our beloved outlook still there.
The flames glowed bright as the dogs and I snuggled up under the covers and the outlook is there this morning.
I’m not at all complacent about things. I am more than ready. Its easier this year with 2 portable dogs who travel well and 3 cats I can generally lay my hands on at any time. Sure, Jockey is outside but he sticks close to the house or me if I’m outside and he usually comes when he’s called. He’s also locked in the barn every evening so if we had to move quickly I would be able to make sure he would be with me.
Of course Alistair is in North Dakota right now but he can get here if he has to. Sure, it takes a full day but one of his partners is willing to cover for him if needed.
I doubt its going to get to that because the winds aren’t predicted to be as bad as the last few days and because the experts have been working hard to make sure this fire moves itself into the Wilderness complex.
People in town are still on pre-evacuation notice and air quality still sucks but we’re all trying to stay positive. The lake itself has re-opened for recreation so that’s a bonus.
I try to focus on things I can control even though I know nobody is out of the woods. And even though I can’t forget the fact a young firefighter lost his life on this particular fire early on I know these crews know exactly what they are getting into when they sign up for this job. And I appreciate and respect that knowledge and the risks these men and women take while they work hard to save our community.
And I’ll take pictures of the little things that make me smile and give me pleasant pause like the young fawn resting in the cool grass along the creek on the 12th hole at the golf course.
Know that we’re all staying strong, we’ve got each others backs up here and everyone is communicating as much as they can. UB, Cleo, Sport, Bebe, Jockey and I, my passport, our diplomas, marriage license and naturalization certificates will be fine. Our photo albums are boxed.
Everything else is just stuff.