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September 21st, 2017
The Rice Ridge Fire - my perspective as a Seeley Lake resident
by Diana Olmstead

In 2007 I saw the fires from a distance while outfitting in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, but after moving here a year ago, I now I have a close-up residential perspective of a large nearby forest fire.

The Rice Ridge Fire has taken a toll on us as we have silently suffered and wondered...day after day gathering around maps posted around town to see what parts of our mountains have burned or how close it is to our homes, and attending fire meeting after fire meeting...learning terms of firefighting that we did not necessarily want to know before it became "our fire".

It started out small ...just a lightening strike way up on Rice Ridge, a beautiful ridge area north of town (July 23) between the valley and the Swan Range. Rice Ridge was laced with beautiful hiking trails and bike trails, a great place to ride a 4-wheeler or a snowmobile.

Rice Ridge Fire as seen from Elkhorn Rd. 7/30/17
Rice Ridge Fire as seen from Elkhorn Rd. on 7/30/17
(photo credit: Andy Christen)

The Morrell Falls trail was a beautiful hike with an astounding view!   The fire was a trouble maker from the start, even when it was small ...taking the life of a precious young firefighter from Missoula. I remember the day I was down in the garden and said, "Oh! I don't like that wind, not good for that fire up on the Ridge."   That afternoon it ran toward town 4 miles in 4 hours, and the authorities came to tell us to pack up and that they would not be able to come to evacuate us.   It was not an official evacuation order, but they said they would leave if it was their family.   I sat in the lounge chair all night listening to the wind chimes and praying the sound would remain a tiny tinkle or no sound at all, and let my fiancÚ and the elderly lady I take care of, sleep.   I was trusting in the on-line Inciweb http://inciweb.nwcg.gov/state/27/0/  https://maps.nwcg.gov/sa/  "hot spot" satellite map which I have come to realize is not accurate and throws out anomalies.   Checking ...always checking my phone to see if the maps of the fire were changing.   How close is the nearest hot spot?

The air quality was the worst in the country.   That horrible acrid odor that made me sick to my stomach without my N95 mask.   I was one of the few in town who wore one.   Why, I did not know.   Did they not have access to masks or did they not care.   I flew the flag out in front of our house at half mast for the loss of the firefighters.   Yes, the Lolo Peak fire near Missoula claimed a fire fighters life, also. The Rice Ridge Fire here in Seeley Lake and the Lolo Peak Fire near Missoula were playing a deadly game ...a race to see which would get worse and endanger the most homes. We shared fire fighters and equipment with whichever fire was worse at the time. One evening we wore our masks out on the porch and, in the light shining on the flag, we could see large flakes of particulate ash floating in the air.   This was what people were breathing without masks.   We had to have our vehicle lights on in the daytime because it was so dark driving, especially in the mornings when the air inversion kept the smoke low in the valley. For weeks upon end, there were no clouds except the darkness from the smoke. The sun would shine red through the smoke and cast eerie shadows across the landscape.   The deer gathered on the lawns that were kept watered.   The lawns that were not watered were brown and crunchy, nearly turned to dust when you walked on them. You dared not drive over dry weeds with a hot muffler!   The excitement of a brief rainstorm gathering, soon turned to apprehension as we realized that there was little rain and new lightning strikes were starting fires in other areas of the brittle landscape ...so many fires!

Watching the planes dump retardant and water on the fire was like watching bombers flying low over our homes, releasing their payloads on an enemy.   It was exciting and kept the adrenaline pumping. Many of our friends and residents made it down to the Lake to watch them scoop water. The  "scooper" planes would also scoop up fish, and the running joke was that the fire fighters were having a fish fry! The DC-10 retardant dumper was huge!

Looking at the newspaper and seeing a photo of a friends home with a huge fire cloud in the background sears the reality into my memory of this craven fire monster driven by hot winds and severe drought. We look out the window at night and no, it's not the moon...it's fire on the mountain, "run boys run."   Mordor seethes beyond that red glow. Will the dragons breath spit it's hot embers, unseen by the fire watchers? In the stillness of the hot midnight, listening to the wind chimes on the porch, I pray that there would be no winds blowing strong enough to create fire that runs for miles in a short time.

For weeks we were under an evacuation warning which means keep your vehicles packed and, if the evacuation order comes, be ready to leave immediately without the ability to return to your home. If you were down at the ice cream shop in town and the order comes to evacuate, you better have all your pets with you for you may not return. I drove to work with my van packed full of valuables.   After the trash piled up, we had to double bag it so we could throw it on top of the valuables and take it to the dump. Yes, others had to do the same thing. Carrying your trash on top of your valuables can be humbling.

After attending fire meetings twice a week for weeks at the elementary school, some of us played hooky and attended the play Shakespeare in the Park, outdoors at the Double Arrow Lodge.   I had forgotten my mask and would have (again) been the only one to wear one, if I had it.

No one said anything as we laughed and enjoyed the superb acting, but there was that acrid odor of the fire and the tiny ashes floating down that could easily be mistaken for the strange white moths that seemed to flutter around as if they were also ashes.  

I was paying attention to the ashes and the play, remembering the warriors just outside of town in the heat and their heavy clothing, battling the inferno endangering our town.   It was like a no-man's-land.

People, tourists passed through as though they could touch something historic that was in the news.   But they did not want to stay, it was not pleasant; the lake was closed except for fire planes and the smoke was choking.   People jogged and some locals recreated and pretended it was not bad.   The air quality authorities suggested that everyone, especially those with asthma and children leave town.   With no evacuation order, how can you leave home if your house is still there and your garden in bloom?   Our home is fairly airtight so living indoors was not bad, but some people actually had tiny ash particles accumulating indoors.

Twice we drove up to the top of our subdivision to watch the fire, and twice the authorities came and asked us to go home, that we needed to be closer to home.

On August 26th, we drove and then hiked to the top of a hill above Drew Creek Park 15 minutes away and saw three fires burning: the Rice Ridge fire (shown below),


Fire in the basin beyond Morrell Mountain on August 26th looking northeast from Mountain View Drive near Drew Creek.  This section of the Rice Ridge Fire was in an area intended to be protected from burning and was an ominous progression of the fire over the Swan range toward the wilderness areas and the southeast ranches. (photo credit: Andy Christen)

the Liberty Fire on the other side of the highway and the Lolo Fire 55 miles away. There was a sigh of relief to learn that several firefighters had escaped a brush with death when they had become trapped between the Liberty Fire's main fire and a spot fire they were attempting to extinguish. The firefighters use fire to fight fire but we always pray that the winds are in their favor and no drones invade air space while the retardant planes are assisting them. On the Lolo Fire a back burn (or burn out fire as they are called), got out of hand and burned two homes.   Also, it is my understanding that the reason for evacuations here in Seeley Lake was that the burn outs that the firefighters were doing one afternoon were not allowed their companion retardant planes, because someone violated the no fly zone and flew a drone.   That caused all fire operations from the air to stop and the fire to get out of hand.   We watched as a strange fire cloud appeared over town and the evacuations began over the next several hours ...radiating further and further out until, for everyone's safety, most of the town was evacuated, while the National Guard positioned themselves at the borders of the evacuation zones.  

Rice Ridge Fire beyond the Seeley Lake Elementary School 8/28/17
Rice Ridge Fire beyond the Seeley Lake Elementary School 8/28/17
This portion of the fire got out of hand when a drone interfered with a controlled burn causing the town's evacuation.
(photo credit: Andy Christen)

Whispers, rumors, blaming ...human nature, yet most of us, authorities and residents alike have done our best. We must forgive and understand that emotions and little sleep have frayed our delicate nerves. Also, whether we like it or not, there are people with jobs to do who are following laws and rules.   Some have had too much responsibility in overseeing others.  

Hurry hurry, then wait wait. Exhaustion of gathering precious items, then boredom for the evacuees.  Strange, we were located just inside the evac zone bordering the non-evacuation zone and so close that we could faintly hear those folks who had not been given their orders to leave.  Still, the authorities had to draw the line somewhere.   Eventually and reluctantly, I had to leave because the lady, for whom I care-take, was running low on her meds, a necessity that I had to pick up at the local pharmacy. Passing the National Guard at the corner a block away, I could not return.

Skip ahead about 10 days ...then ...Oh ...the joy of returning home again to loved ones who stayed behind in the "evac zone" ...the other side of the invisible wall, no-mans-land, labeled as "refused to leave"...non existent to the authorities, except for a number. Our neighborhood never looked so good to me, and our trees, our poor thirsty trees are still there with home sweet home still standing next to them!

This fire monster has cemented a camaraderie between the towns people like only survivors of disasters understand. Stopping at the post office, most of us who don't know each other seem to silently say with a smile, that we are so happy to be back home again. We are blessed that nearly everyone's life and home has been spared.  We thank the men and women who have fought the beast and used it's own tricks against it. They are our true life heroes and heroines.  

The season ending event has prayerfully yet suddenly arrived, with the cold rain and snow at the higher elevations. Do the firefighters have warm enough clothing to keep them through to the mop-ups as they put the finishing touches on the masterpiece of their work of keeping human lives and homes safe? I'm sure that there will always be questions of why the fire got so big as well as accusations that it was allowed to run through places where it seemed that it should have been stopped from burning. Hindsight and Monday morning quarterbacking always combine for favorite topics of conversation after a significant event.

We mourn the loss of the beautiful trees in our playground, and some of the unfortunate forest creatures who were unable to escape, yet there has been some humor amid the tragedy.   There were more grizzly bears spotted near civilization since the fire drove them out, and the forest service has set up a bear safety tent right there in the fire fighters camp.   After all... the poor endangered bears need a refuge, right? Well, no ...it's to educate the firefighters on how to avoid the bears!  "Bear safety" is probably a can of bear spray dispensed to each firefighter to carry alongside their Pulaski (the tool named after a heroic fire fighter in the 1910 fires). It's been six days now since the evacuation order was lifted and I know I've been sad for the loss of nearly 156,000 acres (so far)...but only tonight did I grieve for the loss of life that the monster devoured.   I was cleaning my office from the disarray of evacuation and ran across a map of the trails north of town. Aftermath and reality set in.   I know we lost much of our summer and many residents who count on tourism, lost their livelihood. I don't want to look upon the naked devastation except through binoculars, until it has first been clothed for many long months with blankets of winter snow.  

The beautiful wilderness areas east of the Swan Range have also suffered.   My thoughts and prayers are with the outfitters who have lost so much of their summer trip areas and hunting ranges. I lived for several summers by those beautiful creeks and lakes and hunted and rode horseback through the majestic wilderness forests.   It's natural, it's fire.

The regeneration will hold a beauty of it's own, although there have been too many fires these past years in the wilderness. One can ride for hours through a burn of nearly any age and find beauty in each stage of  transformation and regrowth. There are mosaic areas where the fire has left trees untouched or left them alive with scars as badges of courage. There are totally hot burned areas where there is nothing left, not even charcoal...just cremated life reduced to white powdery ash. New life will spring forth, as the spring follows the winter.   Pine cones will sprout forth from the heat of the fire that otherwise would not grow and they will over the years to come create new forests.   The fresh green grass and wildflowers will be the first to herald the beauty of the newness of life.  

One needs to take care when wandering in a burn, many pitfalls and dangers can lurk, including snags (dead trees) that can come crashing down at any time.   I once stood in the wilderness along a trail with my horse, and was glad I had started wearing a riding helmet.   People shouted, "look out; a tree is falling!"   I did not know where it would fall, and it all happened so suddenly. I just stood in place as a dead tree from a several-year-old burn came crashing down.   The branches were mostly burned off to sharp points that dug deep into the ground when it crashed right next to me. I was thankfully unscathed!

Be wise, be safe. Pray for enough rain each year and enjoy the beauty of the forests.   I have lived in Hawaii by the ocean and I love the pine woods in the Montana mountains even more. It has snowed and the air is clear!   The mountains are beautiful once again with snow covering the scars that the fire has left. It's like a band-aid over a wound.   The sun sets and lights up the clouds over the snowy peaks with bright pink against the deep blue sky.  Such beauty after the firestorm!  God bless our community and everyone who fought to save Seeley Lake!

Note: I had wanted to write a book about this fire, but upon interviewing the town's people, I have come to realize that the fire is not something most people want to think about anymore. It's not the first time the town has been threatened, but this time the evacuation was real; they just prefer to put the trauma and inconvenience behind them. With quiet gratitude, people prefer get on with life as usual. I respect their feelings, yet I needed to share the deep sentiments this experience has emblazoned upon my soul.

Diana can be reached at diolmstead@yahoo.com