Out of Bounds

Welcome to August in June

It’s high-water season, too early for extreme fire behavior

By Rob Breeding

I was sitting in a Billings brewery the other day, practicing my one skill that requires no practice. Outside, the world was blowing up.

Maybe not the world, but Maurice Mountain, on the outskirts of Red Lodge, sure was.

I’d stopped in the brewery about 5:30 p.m. The day was a “normal” 105-degree scorcher so cold beer seemed a good move. I stayed for two hours. When I walked back outside, the sky was gone.

Maybe not gone, but it sure was obscured.

While I’d enjoyed a few IPAs, the Robertson Draw Fire blew up and, from horizon to horizon, blue sky had been replaced by a grayish-brown quilt of smoke. You couldn’t smell it as the plume rose sharply off the mountain straight into the atmosphere and there wasn’t a whisper of haze at ground level. But up high the roiling smoke blotted out the sun. 

From downtown you couldn’t see much, but there are vantage points in Billings that offer a clear view of the Beartooth Plateau. From there it looked as though the fire got a kiss of that heat and wind and started charging across the mountains toward the small community of Bearcreek.

Like much of rural Montana, there was once a bustling community in Bearcreek — more than 3,000 living in the canyons and coulees just over the hill from Red Lodge. Those communities were built around the Smith Coal Mine until a different kind of disaster struck. In 1943, an underground explosion killed 74 miners and one rescuer; the mine never reopened. 

There are fewer than 100 residents in Bearcreek today, and that diminished population was essential in drafting a law passed in 1993 allowing the continued gambling on pig races at the Bear Creek Saloon. A state law was written to allow for this sort of gaming, but only in incorporated towns with fewer than 100 people. 

Bearcreek is the only place in Montana that qualifies.

It was hot in Billings the day the fire blew up, and in the mountains the wind was blowing to the northeast, driving the fire across the timbered slopes of Maurice Mountain toward Bearcreek. Before that afternoon it had been just a minor fire of less than 2,000 acres. By day’s end it had consumed more than 21,000.

Bearcreek was evacuated, but then the town was spared another disaster. It cooled off and the wind laid down. By the next day, the evacuation order was lifted and the pig races and saloon were saved.

There are reports of one home lost, a place on the outskirts of Belfry. Authorities suspect the fire was human caused and a suspect has been interviewed.

It was a terrible day and a terrible fire, but it wasn’t something all that out of the ordinary, other than the cognitive dissonance you felt when you considered the blaze’s explosive nature, then the calendar. It’s June, high-water season; too early for extreme fire behavior.

I had plans with friends to fish Rock Creek north of Red Lodge the day after the fire blew up. Our last texts the night before left the trip in “wait and see” status. By lunchtime the following day the trip was back on. The fishing was slow as the creek was still high with runoff. High yes, but only about 60% of the average flow for mid-June.

The USGS water data website portends a bleak summer on Montana rivers. About half the water gauges on the map are marked with green dots, meaning average water levels. The rest are orange (less than 25%) or brick red (less than 10%).

Expect a lot of those dots to turn stop-sign red (dang near dry) by August. There will be plenty of smoke too, though by then I expect we’ll all smell it.

Rob Breeding writes and blogs at www.mthookandbullet.com.

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