More Rain, Please

Only one Montana congressperson voted for a better plan to combat forest fires

By Mike Jopek

It tastes bad. It’s in the sinuses. Blow the nose over and over, yet it endures. The nagging headache is small. It comes and goes. It’s like spending an afternoon shoveling grain from a dusty bin. More sneezes are pending.

The vapor hung in the valley like smog. A hot fog, the inversion looks like every winter. The mists and vapors absent. The air feels too hot and dry.

It reeked unhealthy. Old and young were urged to stay indoors.

The haze from the multiple forest fires is ubiquitous. The dust felt familiar given its return many Augusts in a row. Is this the new normal?

Locals struggle to describe the feelings surrounding forest fires; words fail us, limited by vocabulary.

It smells like a smoldering brush fire a contractor tried to burn after clearing land of green wood.

The sun was beet red, when visible. It often cut the morning miasma of smoke like it knew what it was doing. It lost some August intensity, yet by afternoon it burns as familiar as first frost.

The taste and touch of the Flathead smoke are the least of our problems. Some homeowners lost more as the fast moving infernos ravaged land like hungry fall ghosts pursuing tender annuals.

My neighbor told stories of her early days when the view from their homestead to Teakettle Mountain was unobstructed of trees.

The fires of a hundred years ago burned everything. The charred remains of trees are but nervous stumps in back yards. They’re ever present, occasionally overrun by a rummaging bear seeking grub.

There’s a general sense of unease among friends. People talked of leaving to go to the desert, to go to the ocean, to the high country, anywhere but here. Nervously we wiped at our dry noses and rubbed our foreheads. It’s worrisome.

Any neighborhood could’ve been next. Dry lightning doesn’t discriminate, nor do cigarette butts, nor studs left on a moving car. Lightning struck plenty of trees by our farmstead in past years but not when it’s this dry.

I put on the N-95 respirator mask to work outdoors. I don’t like it. It’s too dystopian, end-of-world feeling.

Mask air is hot and damp. The breathing is more labored, like an old dog’s. Air tastes better, but burning eyes persist.

The indoor air scrubber is running on high and high-quality furnace filters are taped to farmhouse windows.

Many locals prayed for rain. Last week saw some, accompanied by a tad of relief. Likely only snow extinguishes these wildfires. The smoke might be from California, Canada, or Montana. It respects no borders.

But rain earlier cleared the air in the valley, for a bit. Another cold and wet weather front is predicted for this week. Some businesses closed for the season; many economic-driving tourists reconsidered vacations. It’s a shame.

It’s not like Congress or the White House much cares. They blame a lack of logging. Sure, federal timber management is problematic. Yet almost everyone but our politicians can feel that today’s summers are drier and hotter than ever before.

It’s strange; it’s sad and worrisome. If Congress choked down this amount of smoke for a solid week, federal policies would change immediately.

Only one Montana congressperson voted for a better plan to combat forest fires. Two others talked and talked, then voted against federal funds to cut more timber, maintain trails and roads.

In Montana, only Sen. Jon Tester voted to allocate resources to fix how the feds pay for forest fires. Thanks to Sen. Tester, raging fires on our national lands are now treated like other natural disasters. Hopefully this fire season ends soon.

Firefighters are heroes. The men and women putting their lives in danger to manage these monstrous acts of Mother Nature are champions of our society.

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