It’s easy to play the blame game after a fire season like the one many Montanans have experienced this year. Anger is understandable when some of our favorite places have burned, when livelihoods have been affected and thousands of acres of private property have been threatened or damaged, including my own place near Dog Gun Lake, just inside the Lewis and Clark National Forest.
According to regional forester Tom Tidwell, 97 percent of new fire starts were put out this year. With the extreme heat and dry conditions we’ve had that is a very impressive record of service. Now that the smoke has cleared and winter is upon us I have to ask why some people are so quick to complain and assign blame for fires that sparked and blew up because of dry conditions and record-breaking temperatures – seven days above 100 degrees in July alone.
I know the cost of these fires more than most people, and it’s clear to me that what we need is understanding, common sense, and gratitude, not finger pointing.
The last of July, we evacuated what few possessions we could fit into my pick-up, a four-horse trailer and a flatbed trailer. On Aug. 2 a wall of flames from the Skyland fire spread north of Sundance Mountain and roared through our place from the west. It burned our log barn and corrals, a historic dude ranch cabin, four outbuildings, fences, hay, and lots of equipment. The barn was a particularly difficult loss since it was the command center of the place – the shop, “lumber yard,” my “hardware store” – and contained much of the equipment I use to conduct the workhorse workshops that provide me with a living.
It’s discouraging to lose so much of what I’ve built up over the years, but I refuse to feel like a victim or pin blame for these fires on someone or something besides record-breaking heat and drought. I made a choice to live near Bob Marshall country so I could get away from crowded valleys and busy roads and live in a natural, wild place. But one of the risks of living in this beautiful place is fire, and that will not change anytime soon, especially when temperatures are predicted to rise even further. This fire season has taught me to be more proactive, more prepared, and also a bit more accepting and grateful.
In our time of need the U.S. Forest Service pulled together a 100-person crew and worked very quickly, clearing trees and brush, setting up sprinklers, spraying foam on the buildings and covering doors and windows with foil. That fire crew is the only reason that my small house and several guest cabins remain standing today. Since then, friends and neighbors have volunteered countless hours of their time helping me get my place back in order. After the fire, volunteers from the Montana Wilderness Association and the Summit Prep School in Kalispell provided me with 15 extra sets of hands as I prepared to conduct my Labor Day workhorse workshop.
This is the type of teamwork that should be the focus of our energies. Finger-pointing about fire only divides communities over what we cannot control precisely. I feel we should all be pulling together to focus on where and how we can have a positive impact right now. Instead of complaining and finding blame after the fact, I suggest that we take a proactive approach by supporting forest and fire management programs that will make a difference in the future – while avoiding the environmental mistakes of the past. Knowing that I have far more left after the fire than most people in the world ever have in their lifetimes, I’m looking ahead, rebuilding, and feeling very grateful for the firefighters and friends who have done so much for me – Thank you all.
Doug Hammill lives in East Glacier
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