Too Pretty to Burn

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RED LODGE, MT — The continuing downward spiral of state Sen. Derrick Shepherd has not caused a ripple out here in Red Lodge, except among the small contingent of former south Louisiana residents who have moved here in the past 20 years. That’s only fair, I suppose. The nearly 10,000 acres of national forest that are burning a mere 6 miles west of this cozy mountain town have not grabbed any headlines in New Orleans.

 

The Cascade Fire, as this blaze has been dubbed (investigators suspect it was started by an unknown camper near a campground known as Cascade), has hit Red Lodge much the same way that a hurricane in the middle Gulf affects New Orleanians. Everybody hangs on every word from the people in the know, hoping for good news. Folks here, however, much more so than those in New Orleans, have a healthy respect for nature … in ways too numerous to count.

 

One thing that really struck me during my first visit to Red Lodge in 2003 was how the people here depend on one another — all the time. We have seen that in New Orleans post-Katrina, and it’s a wonderful thing. But up here, where winters are harsh and the economy is pretty much cattle, cattle, tourism and cattle, folks long ago developed an ethic of looking out for each other. They’re also extremely grateful for anyone who offers a helping hand, but you’ll never see them begging for it.

 

I noticed that profound sense of gratitude and togetherness yesterday (Thursday, July 31) at the 5:30 p.m. “fire briefing” in the Red Lodge Community Center. The whole town has maybe 2,200 people, and about 600 showed up for the briefing. When you consider that almost half the people here are kids and a good portion of the others were working, that was one helluva turnout. We heard from a panel of presenters, ranging from the local Red Lodge Fire & EMS (a volunteer group supported by private donations) to the U.S. Forest Service (one of the most professional groups of public servants you’ll ever encounter, despite 8 years of gutted budgets by the Bush/Chaney administration), to the local sheriff and a local doctor who have reports on air quality and health threats from the severe smoke. There was even a PowerPoint presentation on the fire’s status, and a forecast with the usual disclaimers. (Mountain weather is even less predictable than south Louisiana weather, if you can believe that.)

 

Each report was followed by a thunderous round of applause. In town, every storefront on Broadway Avenue (the main drag) has a sign that reads, “We LOVE our fire fighters.” And they mean it. The guy (I didn’t get his name because I got there a tad late) who gave the report on behalf of the Forest Service and fire fighters (the fire is being fought jointly by the Forest Service and private, professional forest fire fighters who fly from state to state every summer to fight wildfires) got the biggest ovation of all.

 

The fire fighters are easy to spot around town — they’re covered in sweat and soot and they look exhausted, yet they never seem to complain. These folks are absolutely awesome — the West’s answer to our Katrina first responders. To me, they rank right up there with the men and women in NYC who ran into the Twin Towers on 9/11 — they “jump” into hot spots to fight the blaze and work day and night to try to control it, at great risk to themselves. Most of them get less than 8 hours of sleep a day … in small tents pitched alongside the small Red Lodge airstrip.

 

One truly amazing thing about the work the fire fighters have done is their success at containing this fire as much as they have. As my friend Cavan Fitzsimmons pointed out to me seven years ago this week, forest fires have a life and an attitude all their own. Much like people. This one is no exception. A common misconception about wildfires is how difficult they are to control. Simply put, you don’t put out forest fires. At best — at your very luckiest — you can contain them and try to steer them … a little. But basically these things rage out of control, subject only to the wind and the rain (if there is any rain) until the first snowfall, or the first frost.

 

The Cascade Fire started last Saturday, July 26, as I was on my way up here. Amazingly, it’s already it’s 31 percent contained. That’s a miracle, considering the prevailing winds have been pushing it right at Red Lodge.

 

Another great success story of the fire fighters has been their ability to keep it from destroying the town’s small ski resort. “Resort” is hardly the word, but it’s what they call it. It’s not like Vail or Aspen or any of the bigger resorts. It’s more like a day ski area. There are no big hotels or condo developments or anything like that. If you want to ski Red Lodge, you stay in town and drive almost 5 miles to the slopes to ski. You can get rentals and lessons and all that on the mountain, but there are no ski-in, ski-out accommodations. (A California company recently bought the ski area, which means that quaintness may change. I hope not. If people want to go to Jackson Hole, they can go to Jackson Hole. It’s easier to get to, and Dick Cheney doesn’t really live there.) Anyway, the ski area is major source of employment during the winter and spring months for the locals, most of whom have summer jobs like being fly fishing guides, craftspeople, landscapers, etc. So far, the ski area remains intact, thanks to the fire fighters.

 

Another reason the folks here want to preserve the ski area is because they recognize that if the fire crosses the top of Granite Peak (location of the ski area just west of town), it could then destroy a lot of homes on the down slope of the mountain and possibly even march into town from another angle besides the mouth of the West Fork Canyon, where the fire started and has thus far, miraculously, been more or less contained. (See this map of the fire to get a perspective.) Local ranchers and horse farmers have been moving cows and horses for a week, stocking up on hay and hoping for the best.

 

To give you an idea of how quickly and dramatically the winds can change — and how much that can affect air quality — take a look at the photos below.

 

The first one shows some land about two miles west of town the day the fire started (last Saturday). At that time, the fire was less then 1,000 acres big.  The second photo shows the same scene two days later, when the West wind pushed whole lot of smoke toward town. By this time the fire consumed more than 4,000 acres.

 

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The next two photos show the town’s main street, Broadway Avenue, on a nice clear day — and during this week’s morning “inversion,” which brings smoke into town almost every morning. Folks with asthma and other respiratory ailments have been advised to evacuate.

 

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As we learned to do during and after Katrina, folks here are making the most of it — and sticking together. One Red Lodge native told me after the briefing yesterday, “I’ve lived here all my life, and even when I was a kid folks said the West Fork was overdue for a burn. That’s been almost 40 years now. There’s probably a century of fuel on the ground out there, so this fire won’t be out any time soon.”

Hopefully, the town will be spared. To paraphrase General Ulysses S. Grant, Red Lodge is too pretty to burn.

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