With millions and millions of acres destroyed by the
wildfires rampaging through western America, I began worrying about my ex-husband, JJ, burning up in Montana, for real, not just because of the passionate intensity of his opinions.
JJ, who I’ve known since we were 22, and his second wife Laurel, both great friends of mine, had — ironically enough — moved to Montana in search of a better life. I was following the barrage of horrendous headlines emerging round the clock: “Lightning Sparks New Fires In Montana,” “Westerners Staying Despite Fires,” “Firefighter Killed Battling Western Blazes,” “Inferno Melts Montana’s Two Main Power Lines.”
Suddenly it occurred to me my friends might be in the path of these
fires, a thought which made me extremely uneasy.
So far, this season’s Montana fires have incinerated a chunk of land larger than the size of the entire city of Los Angeles.
Underlying the firefighting is, of course, a faint whiff of possible political scandal — perhaps the U.S. government made too many cutbacks in emergency funding. But I didn’t want to think about that when all this land, all these homes, all these lives were at stake.
Talented musicians involved in arts administration, JJ and Laurel had grown tired of the soulless rat race in big Eastern cities. A few years ago they split Philly and bought a nifty little A-frame house in Helena, with their whole back yard a forest. Initially they found
Country an exhilarating picture postcard from
nature. Land of Shining Mountains. Treasure State. Bonanza State. Ponderosa Pines. Native Americans. Gold and silver madness. Buffalo herds. Western Meadowlarks. A capital city known as Last Chance Gulch before it became Helena. Explorers. Fur trappers. Traders. Miners. Army forts. Missionaries. Trading posts. Soldiers. Prospectors. Vigilantes. Mission settlements. Big-game Hunters. Ranchers. Loggers. Farmers. Settlers. Last outpost of real rugged individualists.
JJ had been tapped to run a regional performing arts complex in Helena, and Laurel was soon hired as program director for the state arts council there. It’s poignant that for “survival” reasons they were forced to become cultural nomads of the arts. Back East, she was an extraordinary flutist and principal of a suburban music school, while he was a visionary avant-garde composer-percussionist who founded and directed a trail-blazing contemporary chamber music ensemble.
When I first called JJ and Laurel late last Thursday, they’re sanguine, yet fully aware what a scary situation this is. Though, fortunately they’re not in the beleaguered Bitterroot Valley, fires were closing in, and they had realized with a shock the night before that they could actually be ordered to evacuate at any time. So they inventoried and documented their possessions, made a list of emergency essentials, took digital pictures of their belongings for insurance purposes, put stuff in storage, and secured the photos at Laurel’s office. “We’re packed to evacuate within an hour’s notice,” JJ says. “Walk away from all of this. Declare a total loss. When the governor gives us that order, we’ll leave.”
Like a friend of theirs whose home went up in flames. She was totally unprepared, hadn’t imagined this could happen to her. She’s still homeless, and her insurance is paying for a hotel. It was a lesson to her.
Laurel and JJ never contemplated the possibility of watching their existence literally go up in smoke. “Most people don’t realize how bad this is here. Major fires erupting eight miles away,” JJ told me by phone, adding, “we’ve never been through anything this bad.”
These people are no wimps. JJ served in Japan as a Navy communications specialist on submarines, and Laurel put herself through college by everything from professional dancing to playing at weddings. Surrounded by fires on three sides, from every vista as they look out their house, it’s … smoke. They can’t see more than one-sixteenth of a mile. “Really, really scary,” Laurel admits, her voice scratchy from constant coughing and sneezing. The thick, dry, smoke-befouled air is nearly unbreathable. “Last night, I couldn’t sleep at all. I think I’m allergic to smoke,” she says wryly. The smoke is so thick, day and night, they can’t even open a window for days until “two itty, bitty thunderstorms” briefly cleared the air, the 95-degree temperatures broke, and shifting winds created a 30-mile view.
Despite their dangerous plight, always-intrepid Laurel is sufficiently self-possessed to tell me Montana is in the dry-end of a 10-year drought cycle. Then she rattles off a raft of fascinating and informative fire lore:
- That Norman MacLean’s last book, “Young Men and Fire” (1992), a moving, award-winning investigative history of Montana’s tragic, disastrous 1949 Mann Gulch
inferno, spurred scrutiny of federal fire policy. It’s now just past the 50th anniversary of that fire. Back then, they hadn’t experimented with back-burning and pre-burning. Twenty young firefighters were trapped in a burning gulch. The captain burned a circle around himself. Join me, he said, save yourselves. They looked at him like he was nuts. They all died. The flames lifted him up 10 feet into the air, but he survived.
- That various Montana fires have started instantly from any number of accidental catalysts. One of the biggest local fires, some guy was dumping his barbecue briquettes. Another was caused by “dry” lightning — lightning unaccompanied by rainstorm. Another, from a spark generated by a logger’s chainsaw.
- That there are “fire behaviorists” who can often predict the way the fire, as a living organism, will go. This local fire, Laurel says, is not following fire behavior laws, but hopping from treetop to treetop. Yes, I recall this fire-being theory from seeing the movie
All these new-money people have moved into Montana, demanding to be taken care of during these disasters, but forgetting that the bears and fires don’t want them here. Do the firefighters protect the people first, or the land?
“The governor has closed millions of acres of land that normally attract 10 million tourists each summer. In a state that is already existing in a ‘Third World’ condition, this is going to absolutely cripple things next year. People are still coming though, and we wonder why. The firefighting people are saying the big fires will not be fully extinguished until the first snowfall. That might not be until at least September,” JJ e-mailed.
But all is not hopeless. Montana has seven Indian reservations, Laurel and JJ remind me, and 14 separate Indian
tribes, so they are all doing their rain-dances. For the weekend, Laurel and JJ temporarily left their trepidations behind and went to an old hotel resort, Paradise Valley, with a huge pool and
springs. Then they drove to
Park, itself devastated by fire in 1988. Something incredibly interesting happens to trees in fire, JJ says — as they burn their seed-buds drop to earth and scatter. And so now, when you visit Yellowstone, you see, yes, thousands of acres of new trees amidst the old charred skeletons.
It’s part of a plan, a natural
process, JJ says. Come back to Montana fire-country in 20 years, JJ says, the land will have bounced back from devastation, and there’s no end to the cycle in sight.