Seeley Businesses in the Wake of the Fire

By Beacon Staff

Lightning struck near Seeley Lake Aug. 3, sparking the Jocko Lakes fire. Over the next two days the blaze tore through thousands of acres, forced evacuations, and closed the highway – essentially choking off commerce in this town.

“We were full every day, every cabin, through the month of August,” says Brian Bertsch, owner of the Lodges on Seeley Lake. The lodges are on Boy Scout Road in Seeley Lake. They were evacuated twice, both times with guests. “A couple from Germany came for a 19-day stay, we evacuated on their first day,” recalls Bertsch. He says the fire got to within one mile of the property, before being stopped by the line bulldozed by firefighters.

“We can whine about a lot of stuff, but really, the bottom line is we’re still standing,” says Bertsch. “The real truth is we’re saved.” The lodges are right under the Eagle Point Subdivision. Fire ripped through the subdivision, but didn’t burn the homes.

“You never anticipate something like this, but you’re thankful for what you didn’t lose,” Bertsch says.

Brian and Kerry Bertsch have owned and run the lodges since the mid-1990s. “We bought a job 10 years ago,” says Brian Bertsch. July and August are big months for the tourist industry throughout Montana, and Seeley Lake is no different. The Lodges on Seeley Lake are open through the winter, but Bertsch says summer is by far their biggest season. “We have to make it in two months for 12 months.”

The highway closure also meant trucks couldn’t haul out loads, which halted production at Pyramid Lumber. “We weren’t running, we weren’t producing,” says sales manager and owner Steve Johnson. “We just sat here and watched the smoke blow over.”

The lumber mill accumulates wood shavings from the planer, collecting the shavings in a bin to ship to another business in Missoula. Other residuals include wood chips and log fuel. Johnson says they usually have enough for three to four truck loads each day.

“When the bin’s full,” Johnson says, “you put it on the ground, and quite frankly, it’s money on the ground.” They completely shut down operations and evacuated Monday, Aug. 6 until Friday, Aug. 10 when they were given permission for truck traffic, and for the mill to run the planer. Pyramid went back into full production Tuesday Aug. 14.

Highway 83 reopened the next day after a week and a half closure. Almost 1,000 firefighters were working on the 24,190-acre blaze, and helicopters and planes continued to dip into Inez, Placid, and Seeley lakes. People were able to come back to their homes and businesses, but the lakes were still closed, and highway traffic restricted from 8 to 10 a.m., and 8 to 10 p.m..

Meanwhile, Bertsch fielded several calls from nervous people who had booked rooms through August and September.

“There’s people calling and concerned,” describes Bertsch, “can we get there, can we swim, can we breathe?”

For information on assistance, contact the Office of Disaster and Emergency Services at 406-841-3911.