Today we were under a red flag warning. What that means is that conditions are right that a wildland fire if started could go wild and easily grow. Today the air is super dry, my phone says the humidity is 13% and the winds are blowing a steady 21 mph in town. The temperature here at the house is 84 degrees in the shade and the winds here are surely as strong as they are in town. Yes I am from the Midwest and know that 84 isn’t hot at all, but at our place in Montana it is darn hot.
We are starting to enter fire season around here. The Red Flag warning is a sign of the coming of the end of summer. Our grasses are all cured and getting drier by the day. The hottest days of the year should be just around the corner. I can’t remember the last time we had any moisture, but we have dry lightening at least a couple times a week. That is how many of the local wildland fires start. RangerSir had spent the last week trimming down grasses around the house and outbuildings because it is the time of the year you do that type of thing if you live here. We had a large grass fire between our house and town last week. If something gets started out here it should burn hot and fast through our property, but we should be ok. There is always the factor of what are the odds of should really means. So you do all that you can do to improve your odds.
I went out today to try and photograph rooster boy thinking I would get some good photos and would blog about the chickens. The weather was not cooperating. He is a handsome blue rooster, instead here with the wind at his back he looks like he is having a terrible hair day. Oh well what is a little wind now that we are in fire season.
Once again today we are socked in with thick smoke. It comes from wildland fires miles away, but settles in our valley. Some days less, more often so thick that you can’t see a half a mile away. Today is another one of those days; visibility is less than a quarter of a mile, ash is falling and coating everything and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality says our air is very unhealthy. It is so bad in southwestern Montana that many outdoor activities have been canceled, including Friday night sports.
Like so many Montanans I am looking forward to winter. Not because I relish an early winter, but because most days this fall have been covered in smoke. In the snow and cold I can put on more clothing, but in air this smokey you can not really do anything but stay indoors. And like so many it quickly drives me nuts to be confined inside. So if my choice is smoke or snow I say bring on the snow!
I count myself lucky three times. In each of the last three days we have had fires in our little named area with no services. Fortunately none of them have amounted to much.
On July 2nd, my guess is someone threw out a cigarette along the interstate. It quickly caught the grasses and burned up a stretch about 250 feet long between the interstate and the frontage road. Fortunately that day winds were calm, and it was caught before it rolled over the frontage road.
On July 3rd, on the other side of the interstate from where we live a grass fire spread and ended up in the surrounding timber. We were lucky on so many fronts. First the fire was in a sheltered area and the winds did not whip it into an immediate frenzy. Second the timber that it was trying to burn to was not affected by pine bark beetle, meaning it was not dead and dry. The last lucky break was that a nearby wildland fire could spare a couple of helicopters to come help. The first responders were volunteer firefighters from the city of Butte who came with their tanker trucks. Several other tanker trucks, other fire departments and agencies responded. Soon they they had a system where they were advising folks who needed to be evacuated, protecting homes, shuttling water and fighting the fire. Fire resources are thin, and on the ground firefighters are some of the most precious right now. I remember hearing chatter listening to the radio making sure that all the volunteers had an emergency fire shelter, standard protocol on a wildland firefighter uniform, but not likely for folks like the volunteers from town. Helicopters from the Pony fire in Montana, were really the saving grace allowing them to contain it to a small area. These helicopters for the next four hours would spend the time dipping and dropping water on the edges of the fire, then the hotspots, and trees that were unaccessable. Without the the helicopters this fire would have turned in to a full fledged “forest fire.” Folks in the foothills were for a time evacuated. Other locals were bringing horses into corrals close to the house and hooking up trailers to be on stand by to leave if need be. Though about 5 miles from the house, my single exit point was only about 3 miles from the fire. I did start the plan for what an exit would require; I got the cat kennel down, and ID’ed critical items on a list. I started watering and laying hose. I filled horse trough and rain barrels. You can never be prepared, but I was at least not going to be caught unaware. By 9 that night with the great work of the helicopter and the on the ground firefighters the fire was contained at something near 30 acres. We had dodged a serious threat.
Today 4th of July, the fire fighters had to bring their water tankers for a 3rd time! Another grass fire. This time set by one of the neighbors who was working on a fence project on my road. He was up doing some kind of metal grinding and a spark lit grasses and he could not get it out himself. 911 was on their way. Fortunately the winds that are now blowing out there now had not yet come up. It was more of a fire than one man could put out, but not travelling so fast that it was going to make my house. But once again the neighbors were out their laying hose and wetting things down.
All three of these fires were caused by carelessness and stupidity. People need to think. I watch fires in Eastern Montana that have burned over 380 square miles driven often by wind. Colorado fires small by comparison, but with so many people living in that urban interface, the impact has been devastating to hundreds of people as well. I listen to folks on the East coast talk about no power and think of the folks in Eastern Montana that have been without electricity for over a week now plugging away in the same situation. If we were to lose power it would not only would it impact our appliances, but it would also eliminate water for us, as we have wells out here. Without water the fire danger becomes even worse. We can not prevent nature caused fires, but we can all be much more careful out there. I am thankful for all our good luck and pray that this is the end of our close calls.
Looking over the Madison River at the Bear Trap 2 fire.
There are lots of wildfires aka forest fires across the US right now. Historically Montana should not get be in fire season yet. Our normal fire season starts in late July after the grasses have cured and the spring rains have stopped. This year spring rains never developed, we had early hot spells and everything dried out way too soon. Just last week we were slammed into fire season. We had been hot,dry and windy, and in just a few days we had six fires break out. These fires broke out during a weather system where the winds were blowing sustained speeds of 30-40 mph, with gusts as high as 75 mph. These fires went from zero to thousands of acres in hours. I can’t imagine a a fire that moves that fast. My heart breaks for all those folks who lived in those areas, who had to leave their homes; many not yet knowing if there is anything to go back to. Thanks to firefighters, first-responders, and others who are doing the best they can to fight these fires with resources that are spread thin by the number of fires we have right now and shrinking budgets on county, state and federal levels. A heaping sense of gratitude to those families who support all those out there on the front lines and the support positions; we appreciate you sharing your special person with us and missing birthdays, games and other family functions to help strangers they may never know.
I hope this early summer is followed by an early fall. If it wants to start tomorrow that is ok with me. Unfortunately tonight we had storms with very little moisture, lots of lightning, and they are calling for hot weather again.