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Montana Stories: North Fork Firestorm

The big fire took off near the end of a hot summer when the woods were tinder dry. I was working as the editor of a weekly newspaper in northwest Montana, a small paper with a large footprint. We had a circulation larger than the local daily but the staff was tiny. We had a reporter, photographer, typesetter, two ad salesmen, a printer and his devil, and me.

I got a short salary based on a 40-hour week and never worked less than 60. So did everyone else. It was a source of pride to us that we consistently beat the daily to the good stories with a skeleton staff, week after week. My job was a very educational and humbling experience. In addition to normal writing, editing and layout functions, I learned how to run the printing press, how to put newspapers in the coin-operated machines chained to the front of grocery stores and how to sell ads if someone got sick, or got sick of his job and quit.

Earlier in the year I got lucky and managed to hire an excellent young photographer fresh from college graduation. Jeff had a towering natural talent along with unlimited energy and enthusiasm. He was also three-quarters crazy. He rode fast motorcycles and chased girls either too young or too old for him. Still, he was a good fit for the job.

By August, large fires were burning in this corner of Montana. fires too isolated to get much coverage on the six o’clock news which was dominated that year by the spectacular fires in Yellowstone. A thunderstorm moved south from Canada one night and lit up the isolated North Fork Valley. About five miles south of the Canadian line, lightning started a quick-burning fire on Federal land on a densely wooded plateau. Because it was tinder dry, the wind so strong and the area so remote, the fire got a two-day head start before anyone knew it was burning.

The North Fork of the Flathead river separates National Forest land to the west from Glacier National Park to the east. This area is completely wild, untamed, un-dammed and unpolluted. No motorized boats are allowed, no cabins or houses within a mile of the riverbank — either riverbank, and only limited fishing. The road that meanders through this country is the back door to Glacier park and serves as a remote border crossing to Canada used by smugglers of all kinds since before Prohibition. It’s about 90 miles of bumpy, dusty or muddy, rutted washboard gravel, easily qualifying as one of the five worst roads in North America. County government has made periodic attempts to pave the road, but the paving plans are always stopped short by the opposition of residents who cherish the isolation,

Access to the park from the valley is controlled by a couple of seasonal employees who have a little log cabin on the park side of the river. At this spot, a single-lane bridge built of huge wooden poles spans the river. At the west end of the bridge is a small outpost consisting mostly of a general store, the Polebridge Mercantile, which the only sign of commercial civilization in the thousand square-mile valley.

By the time the Forest Service in the remote North Fork valley realized it had a problem on its hands, the isolated fire had burned over 5,000 acres, at least that was the estimate from the pilot of the scout plane. Considering its remote location, the Forest Service decided to mount a minimal effort to stop the fire. There were only a few small ramshackle cabins without power or running water between the fire and the river.

As editor for the paper, I interviewed the forest supervisor before we chased the fire. Supervisors are like colonels in war zones. They wield godlike authority. Ed, the supervisor, puffed up with his own power, said the river would stop the fire. He stated it more as an order than a prediction. He was to pay for his arrogance in the face of fire and wind.

I left town with young Jeff the photographer in tow and drove the 60 miles to the end of the pavement before starting up the endless gravel nightmare of North Fork Road. By the time we got to Polebridge, it was nearing sunset. Sane men would have turned around and gone home but we knew if we went back now we would only have to drive up the god-awful road again the next day. We bought supplies at the Mercantile from the few remaining items on their shelves and then continued north.

We got five miles up the road when we were stopped by a Forest Service roadblock. Jeff and I showed our Press passes. The grizzled old-timer leaning on the green forest service truck was less than impressed. He told us this roadblock was as far north as we were going. Period.

He said the wind had come up and the fire was making a run southwest, directly toward the roadblock.

I stood around and talked to the guy, telling myself I was gathering background for the story I had to write but knowing I was actually postponing another drive on the crappy road. Jeff was going nuts from frustration at being stopped short of the fire. Young and talented, yes. Patient, no. He wanted pictures of burning trees and towering flames.

I’d been listening to the grizzled old-timer for a few minutes when his radio started crackling and squawking with voices. We listened to the verbal chaos punctuated with words about falling back and getting out of the way. After a few minutes of panic-stricken radio chatter, a truck came barreling down the road from the north, not slowing down at the roadblock.

Another truck followed. Then a couple of pickups. Then came fire trucks, pumper trucks and more pickups, all beating it south with sirens wailing and driven by wide-eyed men hunched over their steering wheels. From their expressions, I expected the hounds of hell to appear only a step or two behind.

Between speeding trucks, I asked the grizzled old man what he intended to do. He thought for a moment, then said he was heading out. We should too, he said.

I asked him where he was going.

“Don’t know for sure,” he said as he started his truck, “South.”

I made a multi-point turn on the narrow road and followed the dust of the Forest Service trucks.

Jeff was now approaching total insanity from frustration. He wanted me to turn around and drive farther north, toward the fire. Now that the guard was gone he saw an open road to his photographic immortality. Not me. I figured if the hardened firefighters and grizzled old timers were running for their lives, it might be a good time to follow them.

I calmed Jeff down by lying to him. I told him we were going to find a high spot up on a ridge where we could watch the fire and get some night shots. A convenient lie when told that would prove to be true. Hearing my plan, Jeff calmed down, temporarily.

As we drove past Polebridge Mercantile we saw people giving over to their herd instincts and stampeding away from the threat of the flames. We followed the stampede a mile or so down the road where a second Forest Service truck was parked in a semi-serious roadblock position. Another grizzled old-timer stopped us. The Forest Service seems to have a large supply of grizzled old-timers. Perhaps they run ads, “Wanted – grizzled old-timers to stand around at roadblocks.”

I pulled up next to him and leaned out the window.

Before I could say a word, he said, “You gotta get out of the valley, the fire’s making a run this direction.”

I knew that already.

I told him about our news mission. I told him about the crazed photographer in the passenger seat. I showed him our press passes. He gave me the grizzled old-timer sneer. “You gotta keep going down this road and get out of here. As quick as you can. Only Forest Service personnel are allowed to stay in the area.”

I shrugged and then put the truck into gear and drove down the dusty road. Jeff picked this moment to come unhinged. He began ranting about the pictures he needed to stay and take. Then he began raving about the loss of his career and the student loans I was keeping him from paying off, the fame I was denying him. I slammed on the brakes just in time to keep him from jumping out the door he had already forced open.

I told him we weren’t really leaving and to calm down. I started driving slowly again as I held onto his collar to keep him in the truck. I threatened to pull over and thrash him if he didn’t calm down. I was looking for a side road as I steered with one hand, holding onto the maniac photographer’s shirt with the other. We needed a road to take us up high and away from the path of the fire. I spotted a likely looking road a mile or so along. I pulled on the road then stopped and grabbed the map. I found the road on the map and it appeared to go west and up a steep ridge, stopping at timberline.

Perfect, I thought. Up and away from the fire, way up high into the rocks. My reasoning in choosing this strategy was simple, rocks don’t burn, so fires don’t burn above timberline. No trees. No fuel. As we drove up the road, it became a barely discernable double-track trail through the woods. The flaws in my plan became clear. If my idea did not work, or if the wind changed and if the fire came this way, we could never retreat back down to the main road. We would be cut off from any escape.

As I drove to what might be my doom, I formed a kind of idiotic, desperate plan to work the truck over the top of the ridge and down the other side and bushwhack the truck over the rocks. I knew it was a stupid idea born of a terrible mixture of fatigue, fear and adrenalin. But it was the only plan I could muster on short notice. Instead of turning around as any sane man would have done, I kept driving up the deadly road with the lunatic photographer ranting at my side.

He was getting more excited by the minute. I thought I would have to grab him by the neck and shake him again but when we broke out of the trees at the top of a high ridge, the view of the fire to the north and the huge mountains of Glacier Park across the river in the dusk was breathtaking. The sunset was turning turn blood red and the snow on the mountaintops and everything else for miles around was crimson. I began to believe my idiotic plan might work. If we didn’t burn to death, we would have a terrific view of the fire.

I got out and found a rock with a view while Jeff ran around from spot to spot talking to himself, laughing, looking for the perfect angle for his pictures of the fire. He said he was thinking about climbing farther up the ridge to an outcrop a couple of hundred feet above us, farther to the west. I told him if the fire turned and I had to make a run for it, I would leave him to barbecue in the flames.

Finally, when he began to settle down, he asked how long we were going to stay. I told him we were probably stranded until morning, if we lived through the night. I ate some of the food we had gotten at the Merc and then settled down to wait.

Sometime after midnight Jeff woke me up by jumping into the bed of the pickup. My first thought was that I had awakened in hell. There was a huge column of fire to the north. It took me a few moments to figure out what I was seeing. Like a sun, a column of fire lit the entire valley and the mountain ranges. It towered above the mountains on both sides of the river. It looked like an enormous, slow motion tornado of fire weaving through the valley, moving southeast. Reports from experts a few weeks later said the firestorm at its peak was close to a mile wide. We watched as the winds sucked in what appeared to be small trees at their bases and spit them flaming upward. I would discover later what looked like small trees were actually mature trees over 100 feet tall and several feet in diameter. I heard popping and cracking sounds as the fire moved. The pops and cracks were the sounds of the huge trees exploding from the tremendous heat of the fire.

Occasionally I would hear Jeff’s camera shutter snap. He wasn’t talking. The wind was still blowing southeast, which theoretically would take the fire across the valley several miles north of us.

I asked Jeff which direction the fire appeared to be moving. He watched the fire for a while through a long lens, then moved it back and forth across the front of the fire, trying to judge its movement in the dark. It was tricky. There was the blast furnace of the firestorm and there was the contrast of the complete darkness in the rest of the forest. The moon and stars were hidden by the smoke.

He said the fire was moving east, almost due east. Then he told me the bridge and the ranger station were on fire.

“I can see the reflection of the flames on the river,” Jeff said.

He said the forest on the far bank of the river, inside the park, was already in flames. Some of the trees thrown to the sky by the firestorm had sailed over the river. In spite of direct orders from the supervisor, the river did not stop the fire.

I felt sick. I knew what was coming next. There was no stopping the fire now. It would run through the park until it hit the rocks and ice at the top of the peaks clear up on the Continental Divide.

Staring at the roiling, towering column of flames I realized the fire was alive. It was breathing like an exhausted animal. Sometimes it exploded like a blast furnace burning off slag from steel. When the fire slowed for a few minutes, the roar would fade away. After a short time, another blast would make the fire roar again. The conflagration became a huge breathing beast set on devouring everything combustible it could reach. A fire-breathing monster, it would take a bite of timber, sit back for a minute, chew it up, spit huge burning trees into the air, and then reach out and bite off another chunk of forest.

The firestorm continued until dawn and we used the early daylight to sneak away with our skins intact. Our escape the next day was easy. The fire left only smoldering ruin in its wake on our side of the river. We looked up the valley towards Canada to see huge sections, square miles and whole drainages smoking like a devastated war zone. We could see nothing of the bridge or the ranger station, but the store was still standing.

As we drove we saw glades near springs the fire spared and places where it left green meadows and ponds untouched. Charred logs swept downstream by the river caught on the remaining bridge pilings like a charcoal beaver dam. Jeff shot photos of walking wounded residents and charred forest, a sober expression now straight on his face.

A forest fire does not burn absolutely everything in its path. It jumps around wildly, sometimes leaving trees standing on a hilltop or burning the ridges to bare rock and leaving the valley bottoms untouched. Sometimes the caprice of wind and fire burn the valley bottoms and leave the ridge tops untouched. It’s impossible to completely understand anything as wild and unpredictable as fire. Scientists try. They will theorize and model fire behavior in their laboratories as long as there are research grants.

The drive down the long, dusty gravel road was surreal. There were truckloads of men heading north towards the fire to extinguish anything still burning. There were only a few of us heading out of the valley, out of harm’s way. We drove back up to the fire a few days later, during the mop-up operation. Across the river, the fire was still working its way up the steep slopes in the park. Jeff got some good pictures of the skeletal remains of the bridge and the ranger station. He took pictures of the burned-out hulks of trucks and bulldozers.

There was smoking devastation everywhere. It was the battlefield the day after the battle with only walking wounded on the blackened ground. The residents I tried to interview were incoherent or reduced to monosyllables. The grizzled old-timers had strict orders not to talk to the press. The almighty supervisor was on his way to being transferred to a think-tank rest home for broken down forest supervisors somewhere out in Pennsylvania. Turns out he had no authority over a fire.

Jeff won many awards with the photos he took on that long, explosive night and the days that followed. His talent and enthusiasm soon got him a job at a large metro daily newspaper out on the Coast. I heard he calmed down a bit and was never again so quick to jump out of a truck to get a photo. I wrote stories about the fire full of facts and figures with graphs of acres burned and frequency of fires in the Northern Rockies ecosystem. I had quotes from fire science ecologists, Park Service personnel, Forest Service personnel, community leaders and U.S. Senators but I wrote no descriptions of the living, breathing beast I saw that night. I was not even sure what I saw until someone I interviewed explained the phenomenon. He told me it was a firestorm.

“You know, like the firebombing of Dresden and London during World War II?” he said.

I drove up the terrible gravel road last summer. The wooden pole bridge was replaced with an elegantly engineered pre-fab steel structure. The mercantile company sported a fresh “For Sale” sign. Someone bought the land near the main road and has turned it into a subdivision of five-acre parcels. The fresh, dense undergrowth hid abandoned trailers and half-finished cabins, perfect for carrying a wildfire down the valley again.

The charred forest was growing back. It was green everywhere with little seedling trees and grasses. I saw more wildlife than ever before. I looked, but couldn’t find the road we took for refuge in the middle of the firestorm. I thought I would never forget that dirt track. But it has disappeared. Gone. Grown back into the dense undergrowth of the rest of a wild land that looks sometimes like it never changes.

When conditions are just right next summer, or perhaps a summer in a century, another lightning strike will spark a little blaze, or a stray ember will escape to the forest floor. The fire will grow in the wind and radical change will begin again.

—William Simonsen

William Simonsen lives out in the woods more than ten miles from the nearest town in northwest Montana. He has been writing in various formats, mainly newspapers, for decades.

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