Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Fire in the Flathead

Monday, August 22: Driving down our hill to go into town, we saw five fire trucks barreling up, but they turned right, away from our neighborhood, instead of left. But nowhere is far enough away in a forest. The word “evacuation” is spoken not in a whisper but in firm possibility. So you start to think, what should I save? Fire is the one thing nature can do to us that scares a Montanan. We have earthquakes, but they are like California ticklers. We live in the blast zone of one of the world's super-volcanoes, but you don't brood about an event that happens once in 750,000 years. We can have fierce, beautiful thunderstorms that rock the sky, but the biggest concern there is a lightening strike setting off a fire. We can have powerful winter storms dumping significant amounts of snow, but that's something most Montanans just hunker down for and get through with snow plows and skiing ops. But fire destroys. And the worst of it is that people themselves often set fires off by accident, carelessness, or sometimes on purpose. Once begun, fires are hard to control. They are wild in every sense of the word. So what do you save when the evacuation order comes, if you have time? Tax returns? Your grandchild's favorite stuffie? Your favorite book? Your accumulated notes for that memoir you hope someday to write? That portrait of Great Grandfather that takes up half a wall? The stone carving of a buffalo your niece and nephew gave you on their last visit? What's important? Your address book, yes, but do you grab the bills you have not yet paid? I pulled out the suitcases. The dog and cat carriers, and waited for word. Aircraft filled with water and retardants flew overhead, back and forth, making rapid fire sorties. The fire was less than two miles away, as the spark flies. By bedtime, though, the danger to us seemingly had subsided, thanks to the quick and intense work of dedicated firefighters and the proximity of the biggest freshwater lake west of the Great Lakes. Tuesday, August 23: This morning, smoke hung over the depression between two ridges like a thick fog, like a warning. Fire crews had kept vigil all night, and the assault began anew, mainly to keep the fire from spreading as it played itself out, and to hit any hot spots outside the fire's perimeter. We were, are safe. I did not have to choose. But I kept the suitcases handy and I wonder what I'd pick. Wednesday, August 24: This morning the report on the Bierney Creek Fire is that it has held to 80 acres and 70% surrounded. There are 75 homes within half a mile of the fire, and concern still over hot spots outside the fire perimeter, just as before. But looking toward the fire zone from my back porch, the smoke is lower to the ground and the skies above are clear. The riveting sound of the helicopter's water dance is absent. Danger, now, would depend on a radical shift in weather, wind, and fortune. Still, I realize that I, like so many of you, am woefully unprepared for a major disaster.

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