The realities of living in the woods

Originally started by a lightning strike on Aug. 20th, the Sawtooth fire that had been burning for a week on the western flank of Downing Mountain in the wilderness flared up on Sunday, Sept.9th. An observant person looking from the south, from the Gold Creek area noticed a larger plume of smoke coming from the fire, and called it in to the fire department. We were put on alert, or Stage 1 evacuation orders that evening, and began gathering up all our valuables, etc.

On Sunday afternoon, the Hamilton fire chief and a Forest Service fire boss from Columbus, MT stopped by the house to give us an update. We found out they had been having trouble getting permission from the land owner for the area around the "H" to let them do containment lines. Later in the day we took a quick drive up to see if the cable was up on the entrance to the driveway to his property, and on the way talked to the Prineville, OR hot shot team that was building a containment line across the top of our and our neighbor the Mehlberg's acreage to the south. Seeing that the cable was up, Howard gave the property owner a call. He was initially reluctant, "the fire's four miles away!", but after a second try very early Monday morning, now alarmed by events, he said "OK!!". Rumor has it that other land and water rights owners were either also initially reluctant or refused to cooperate. 

On Monday morning, with heavier smoke and ash, as well as burned pine needles falling, we called the kennel to get the dogs a spot there, and also made the decision to get a motel reservation in town. The Best Western helped us out in 2010, the other time we had to evacuate for a fire, so I called them. After taking the dogs to the kennel, we started loading up the pickup and car with only the most important papers, computer gear, a few clothes, and not until it was necessary, the two cats. As the morning went on, it was becoming obvious to us that we were going to have to leave. Howard set out another sprinkler, and we watered down the areas behind the house. By noon time, looking down the driveway to the south, the smoke had gone from gray to having a distinct and frightening orange tint, and not long after that the sheriff's deputy drove up to tell us we'd gone to Stage 2, and had to leave. Howard signed the paperwork to stay, wanting to hold out and water around the house more - I wanted him to go, but he wouldn't,  so I crated up the cats and headed to town. I have to say in 2010 I was more frightened - perhaps because I had to leave in the middle of the night and was by myself, but I was still frightened this time.

Helicopters had been flying all morning doing water drops and fire crews had been working on improving and creating more containment lines. About 2 o'clock as Howard was out in the driveway talking to a colleague on the phone, he looked up hill and could see flames in the trees further up the hill. As soon as he noticed them, a helicopter swung its bucket over them and dropped water on that spot. That made him decide it was indeed time to head downhill.

Under Stage 2 orders we could go back up to the house if conditions permitted, so on Tuesday, we went up to the house to quickly pack up more clothes, moved our and Mehlberg's ASVs down the hill and did some more watering around the house. On Monday the fire got within 50 yards of Mehlberg's cabin, and a continual fight with sprinklers and hard fire crew work spared their cabin, Downing Mountain Lodge, as well as the cell and radio towers next to it. About 3 acres of the uphill, southwest corner of our 50 acres were burned, but because of the water drops only the underbrush was gone - the trees while singed looked OK when we were able to look Tuesday.

Our original motel room was up stairs, so Howard asked for  a ground floor room. Had I known this would cause us to move rooms three times, I would have said "we can deal with the stairs!". I'm sure the cats would have said the same, since they weren't really able to settle down the whole week. Unfortunately every morning, Jem decided to announce on no uncertain terms, that breakfast should be at 3 a.m. I waited until he quieted down, which was around 4, and then fed them. The third room was the worst, with Tippy able to get behind the bed, and later when it was time to leave, under the recliner that was in the room.

We got to come back home on Monday, and exhaustion and worry aside, we did have a lot of help and very kind thoughts through this event, from all the various fire crews, Bitterroot Kennel owners and staff, the Best Western ladies, River Rising and Signal Grill folks, as well as family, friends and colleagues from all over. As I discussed with one AMI friend, I (and they) have been through fires and hurricanes, and we'll take the hurricanes - they don't move as fast!