“We have crew people who’re attorneys and doctors in it for the adventure and adrenaline.”
You’ll see signs of it in mid-summer, and sometimes late in the fall. Then again, you might see it in the spring. It depends on the year and the cause. It depends on the rains and the winds and the spark. To me, it represents destruction and glorious rebirth, and another kind of western hero: the firefighter who rides to the rescue just as surely as the lone, righteous cowboy.
I’m talking about smoke.
Once or twice a year, it teases the nose and worries the eyes, and if its source is close by — say, within miles of your home, near enough to watch trees crowning in the dark — and the fire is big and it lingers, then the sky drains of its vivid blue and the daylight becomes an eerie yellow.
Wildfire happens in Montana, in the mountains and the plains. If it didn’t, we all would be the poorer.
Lewis and Clark and their Corp of Discovery traveled through smoky environs when they visited the Big Sky State 200 years ago. Many early explorers mentioned Montana’s hazy skies in journals and letters home. Some of this smoke came from lightning fires: a thunderstorm can produce thousands of bolts, each with the power of an atomic bomb. But a good share came from aboriginal burning. Together, these two fire sources have been shaping the landscape of the Northern Rockies since time immemorial.
Arizona State University Professor Stephen Pyne describes the history of fire and humans as being inextricably intertwined, “like the strands of DNA.” He notes that we’re the only species able to manipulate fire and that, similar to other species with an advantage, “we’ve used fire to reshape our environment.”
Pyne posits that the Great Fires of 1910 are key to understanding America’s experiment with fire exclusion. The US Forest Service (USFS) was barely five years old when a series of conflagrations in Montana and Idaho claimed 87 lives (most of them firefighters), five towns, and three million acres of forest (much of it prized white pine) on August 20-21.