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
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. on
(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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 email@example.com