Aaron Kyrouac is living the life of an evacuee. Time has taken on an elastic quality for him. Details and dates blur. Sometimes it’s hard to stay focused on one task. His days are monotonous. He wakes every morning and dials the information line for the Jocko Lakes fire. He recently down-sized to one cell phone, but for about a week he carried three and used them all constantly. After gleaning what information he can, he starts reading the newspapers and watching TV for any further clue as to when he, his 18-weeks-pregnant wife Christina, 27, and their 1-year-old daughter Clara can return to their home on a remote piece of land west of Seeley Lake.
The fire torched and melted nearly everything the family owned, but they say they feel grateful, less stressed now than they have in weeks – since evacuating from their home Aug. 4. “It’s just stuff,” is the mantra they repeat to each other, and in their heads, over and over. They are now staying with Christina’s relatives in the Double Arrow Ranch subdivision on the east side of Seeley Lake, where they have been for two weeks, trying not to wear out their welcome. They don’t expect to be able to go home for another four weeks.
“For my wife, it’s been tough to think about a six-week evacuation,” Kyrouac, 28, said. “What’s that look like? What’s that feel like?” He and Christina worry how the stress of the last few weeks has affected her pregnancy, and Clara.
His family and his community are OK so far. But in the early days of the Jocko Lakes fire, he wasn’t so assured.
Friday, Aug. 3, Kyrouac and his daughter first noticed the smoke on a hike by their home on Cahoon Ranch Road, near Hidden Lake, where he works as the manager for a private 80-acre ranch. That evening, the family sat up on a ridge with Kyrouac’s father, Gary Kyrouac, who lives on Shining Shirt Road nearby, and watched the small fire grow. It appeared many miles away, but close enough to see small explosions of the dry, crispy wood and flames jump from tree to tree.
Saturday morning, things began worsening rapidly. Kyrouac called the fire department for information, and was told the fire was growing so fast they couldn’t provide an acreage estimate. Around noon, he got the evacuation notice. It sounded precautionary, and the family began to gather their things. Kyrouac headed to his father’s house to help him with the 38 Siberian Huskies he keeps on the property for sled dog tours and races. Luckily, Kyrouac had the foresight to build an evacuation trailer for the dogs – with spacious boxes to provide airflow for the Huskies – should such a situation arise.
“We had never had to use it for that but I’m glad we had it,” he said.
A few hours later, the formal evacuation notice came down. Kyrouac said the gist of the message was that it was still a precaution, and they would likely be able to return in 48 hours. The group headed down to Seeley Lake, to wait and see what to do next at the Lazy Pine mall, a small shopping center where his father owns a gym. While tying the dogs to trees, Kyrouac and his dad realized they had forgotten to lock up, and asked the authorities for permission to briefly drive back up to the houses.
Once at his father’s house around 6 p.m., Kyrouac realized how badly he had underestimated the scope of the fire. There was no way they would be back home in two days; the houses were unlikely to be there. Walking to the edge of a hill, Kyrouac looked down to see a wall of flame chewing its way toward him, nearly on top of him.
“I had never seen anything like it,” he said. “There was really no way to comprehend just what I was looking at.” At that moment, he realized how wildly reckless it was that he and his father were up there at all: “We turned into the two idiots that you see on the news and say ‘What the heck are they doing there?’” He took off running for his car just as a spotter plane roared over him from above the fire. Just behind it another plane dropped a line of slurry along his father’s property as Kyrouac sped away.
Back in Seeley, the town was buzzing, in a state of near panic that this fire had gotten so big, so fast. At the meeting that night, neighbors told Kyrouac the fire had almost certainly destroyed his dad’s property, along with the ranch he managed.
“At that point, it was just doomsday,” Kyrouac said. “We just assumed everything was gone – we were homeless with no place for the dogs.” His family began to confront their new reality, what Kyrouac described as “the enormity of realizing, ‘Hey, we don’t have anything left and we don’t have anything to go back to.’”
“You’d always heard about ‘The Big One,’ the fire that could take out Seeley,” he added. “Everyone was coming to terms with that Saturday night.”
They went back to the parking lot of the Lazy Pine mall and sat in their vehicles, staring dully at the business owners there emptying file cabinets and lugging computer hard drives out to their cars – salvaging what they could should the village burn.
Kyrouac brought the dogs to the Resort at Paws Up in Greenough, where they led sled trips in the winter, and staked the Huskies to the ground. Then he headed back up to Seeley to stay with Christina’s relatives at the Double Arrow Ranch, before getting an evacuation notice there, and turning around again and driving to Missoula in bumper-to-bumper traffic to stay with Kyrouac’s relatives. They went to sleep at 4 a.m.
He spent Sunday on the phone, trying in vain to get some concrete information, but Monday brought encouragement. A neighbor confirmed, firsthand, that his father’s house was intact, saved by the slurry line. A melted snowmobile, a dogsled reduced to steel runners, and a full, untouched can of gasoline remained strewn around his dad’s yard. The area on the other side of the slurry line was, Kyrouac said, “a moonscape.”
But Tuesday brought mixed news. The house, closer to his father, that the Kyrouacs were planning to move into, was only superficially scorched. But the firefighters, to save the big house, had let the garage containing most of the family’s belongings burn. Among the items lost: Christina’s wedding dress and mementos from that day, Clara’s baby clothes, a toy box Kyrouac’s grandfather had built for him, $5,000 of mountain bikes, several thousand dollars of computer equipment Kyrouac used for a technology consulting business he does on the side, and the cradle Kyrouac had used as a baby that he planned to pass onto Clara someday when she had a child of her own.
“All that was left was cinderblock and rubble,” he said. And that was when the Kyrouac family started repeating their mantra: “It’s just stuff.”
Wednesday brought better news: The house they were caretakers for had emerged intact as well, while the next house over was gone – owned by a young couple just like Kyrouac and his wife. But for the Kyrouacs, the worst was over; the fire had passed through. “It was quite an uplifting day,” he said.
After that, the previous five days of stress lifted for the family. Kyrouac attended subsequent fire meetings, but he is no longer among the frantic homeowners standing around a map trying to predict if the Jocko Lakes fire will start inching toward their home. It already has. The rumor mill still circulates and he tries to avoid that as well. People are just trying to help, and he is impressed by how the community of Seeley Lake has pulled together through the crisis, but he no longer participates in the phone chain of speculative, secondhand information.
“People are calling to try to help,” he said. “You appreciate it but you get really tired of it.”
His father has been allowed to return to his house because it is “in the black,” and the land is almost completely burned out, but the same cannot be said for Kyrouac’s home, where fuels remain and the evacuation notice continues for him and roughly two dozen others.
After a check-up, a doctor confirmed that Christina and the baby growing inside her are fine, unaffected by the week’s stress. And Clara, who will turn two in October, is happy as long as she can play with the dogs on her grandfather’s land.
While disoriented and displaced, losing so much – but not that which is most important – has left the Kyrouacs feeling incongruously uplifted about the work of the firefighters, their community and their lives. They know the fires charring Montana have taken much more from others.
“Living through this is nothing that I and my wife have ever expected,” he said. “It’s a far more positive experience than I ever would have imagined.”
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