Fire on the Mountain

  • September 28, 2015
  • Posted by Connor Adams, Crew Member

“What’s the status on the Bone Creek fire?”


  “Spreading slowly, doesn’t look like much of a threat at the moment.”


“The MCC crew is at Scott Lake, just a mile north of that drainage.”

  “Affirmative, they’re in a safe spot for now, but we’ll keep an eye on the fire and move them if we need to.”


  That’s just a snippet of the radio chatter on the day the Flathead National Forest radio network blew up. After an unseasonably warm and dry July and a morning of freak lightning storms, it seemed that the entire Bob Marshall Wilderness was on fire. Smoke reports were coming in by the minute from Jumbo and Spotted Bear Lookouts, aircraft were being scrambled all the way from Missoula, and the air was getting hazier and hazier with smoke. Right in the middle of a twenty-day project, with our tools cached at the worksite, multiple drains started but not finished, and an entire hitch’s worth of food spread out before us, we watched the recon planes fly overhead and held our breath as the voices on the radio discussed our fate.

  Three days into our second hitch at Scott Lake, the weather changed, and we were advised to evacuate. After a fitful and restless night of sleep, wondering whether we were going to wake up to flames licking at our tents, we packed up our food and our tools, put a pin in the structures we were building (as much as was possible), and packed ourselves the seven miles back to Schafer Ranger Station. The sky was heavy with smoke, visibility was worse than it had ever been, and an ominous orange glow crested the mountaintops to the south as we crossed the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. As we neared the turnoff trail to Schafer, the weather decided that it wasn’t quite done toying with us, and briefly replaced the muggy, humid day with a fusillade of hail. Sweaty, keyed up, and not a little bit demoralized, we entered the ranger station to find the Forest Service personnel gearing up for firefighting, in the event that they were called away to deal with one of the dozens of fires that had sprung up over the previous two days.

  We had barely put our bags down and taken a deep breath when another flash of lightning arced through the sky to land halfway up Lodgepole Mountain, right across the airstrip from the safe haven of Schafer. Before we knew it, a tree on the mountain had torched up and we had another fire on our hands, and another smoke report to give. Alarmed by the notion of a fire so close to one of the Bob’s backcountry ranger stations, the Forest Service called in the big guns: the smokejumpers. Within an hour, a plane roared overhead, making several passes around the mountain, assessing the fire, the weather, and the wind direction, and ejecting from its belly four highly trained men in parachutes. We watched them all land within feet of each other on the hillside, and soon heard the sound of trees dropping and saw helicopters dumping water on the flames. Before the evening was over, the fire had been successfully contained. The smokejumpers hiked down the hill, 80+ pound packs and all, to Schafer just in time for breakfast. They ate the last of our bacon and English muffins, but considering they saved our station from certain doom, I think it was a fair trade.

  Our next hitch brought us to Grizzly Park, with—you guessed it—fire licking at our heels once again. Each day new radio reports called in to change our plans. Are we leaving from Swift Dam? Are we going back to Schafer? Which trailheads are closed due to fires? How are we going to get out? When are we getting out? The confusion was juxtaposed rather appropriately with the apocalyptic environment around our campsite. At only 4 PM, the sky turned a particularly threatening shade of orange, the snap-crash! of falling snags and the howl of the wind filled our ears, and ash rained from the sky to cover our tents, our kitchen, and ourselves. “I’ve never seen the end of the world,” I mused, “but I imagine it must look something like this.” Finally a plan was made to send us out a few days before the end of our hitch, and a brief 16 mile hike and a 5 hour drive brought us back to civilization. The skies in Kalispell were clear and blue, and the tang of smoke seemed to have evacuated my nostrils for good. It was good to be back, but that sense of omnipresent danger and excitement was missing. It was an eventful year to be in the Bob!


Comments

Connor, thanks for this ripping account, compliments on the writing.

Posted by Peter Seares at October 25 2015

Thor!

I really enjoyed your gripping account of the
Fire Days!  So glad you are all safe and sound!

Love—
Lorraine.  xox.

Posted by Lorraine at October 27 2015

Good Story & well written Connor!

Posted by Lawton at October 27 2015

Good Story & well written Connor!

Posted by Lawton at October 27 2015

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