Thursday, September 10, 2015

Our summer of drought and wildfire, and what that meant to us as preppers.

Marston complex fire

As preppers we take into consideration what sort of natural or man-made disasters could be a risk in the area where we live, especially when we approach the possibility of buying a house or property. In the area where we live the main risk is wildfire, with extreme cold as another possibility. We have had one mild earthquake, merely a tremor. that we could actually feel (in 2006), but we don't get tornadoes or hurricanes and we don't live near a volcano or power plant, though some people could consider Yellowstone's caldera 400 miles SE of us to be a risk.
We've had weather as cold as 35 (F) degrees below zero, but the forested mountains have protected us from winds that could have given that a deadly wind chill. It's still weather to take seriously, but for the most part we stayed in the cabin with a fire in the woodstove and only went outside to check on the animals.
For our first twelve years on this property we didn't experience any big wildfires close enough to worry about. The few small lightning strike-started fires in our valley were put out while they were still only a few acres. There were a couple of dry summers that had us nervous but we fared well. Then came this year. This was the summer of drought and extreme fire danger.
Our 'rainy season' is usually from mid-May until the end of June. Some years it rained every day and we planted the garden in ankle-deep mud. Some years the cold weather persisted and we had frost and snow flurries clear into the middle of June. But all of those years, including the 'dry' ones, had plenty of rain in May and June. Not this year.
There were a few rains in the first half of May, and then a light shower on May 23rd. That was the last rain we had until a light shower on July 5th. There was not a single drop of rain in June. Everything dried up and on the bright side, we didn't have to mow again for weeks, and then only because it looked scraggly. June, normally our cool month of rain, turned into an inferno of heat and dryness. The last week of June and the first week of July brought us temperatures well over 100 degrees, some days as high as 105 and 106. This, at a time of year when we think it's too hot if it hits 80.
We joked about escaping to the coolness of the forest and mountains.... and laughed because we live up in the 'coolness' of the forest and mountains where most people go to escape the heat. And there was no escape. We don't know anyone with air conditioning out here because most years it's not necessary. We usually do hit close to 100 degrees a few times a summer but it's brief and goes away before it drains the life out of you. Not this year. We sweltered day after day.
But still, there were no wildfires in our valley, and nothing big anywhere in our county. We watched sadly as Glacier National Park, to our east, suffered two big wildfires in late July and early August. We saw terrible wildfires on the news in places like California, Washington, and Idaho. But here in NW Montana, we were pretty quiet on the wildfire scene.... until mid-August, when it seemed like the whole west end of the state went up in flames.
On the night of August 11th a lightning strike high on the shoulder of Mt. Marston was captured on a security camera at a nearby golf course. Their cameras are not just for security, they also capture wildlife such as deer, elk, bears, and the occasional mountain lion. They cover the mountainsides above and behind the golf course. They've caught beautiful lightning strikes, cloud formations, and other interesting phenomena. This night they captures the lightning strike that changed our valley.

Smoke high on the shoulder of Mt. Marston

By morning a column of smoke was rising from the location of the strike. Dispatch started receiving calls of smoke and flames, spotted from a lake below the fire. The forest service sent their first crews up to check it out. The wind picked up, causing the fire to race uphill. At the top of the mountain is a fire look-out building, one of the few “manned” lookouts still being used. The forest service evacuated the woman who was this summer's look-out person.

The smoke filled our valley.

Smoke on the flank of Mt. Marston.

As the fire raced uphill, the forest service raced to protect the historical look-out building. They wrapped it in a fire-retardant material and covered that with sprayed-on fire resistant foam. Then they left, hoping the building would survive as the fire raced toward it. They had hoped to stop the fire at the top, since fire tends to burn upward, but this fire spread out to both sides and burned slowly down the mountain too. Initially the fire died down at the top and didn't start over over and down the other side. The forest service checked the building and it had survived. 
The look-out building on Mt. Marston,
taken a few years ago.
Later when the fire to the sides send the flames around the back side of the mountain it once again roared up to the top and this time it scorched the look-out tower but the building survived. For days, we didn't know it's fate. The thick smoke veiled the mountains and we waited. It took more than a week for the smoke to clear enough to see the look-out building on top of the mountain, a local landmark visible for miles.
The pre-fire view from the look-out tower.
This building is manned from July to September with a smoke-spotter.
The fire spread out over five mountains along the east side of our valley, staying mainly on the National Forest. Fire breaks were made above the houses closest to the fire, and the local fire department was on standby for days, to defend the homes and buildings if necessary. No evacuations were ordered but a few people left anyway.

Crown fire with flames shooting dozens of feet into the air.
Our house is a few miles west of the location of the fire, and there are a lot of houses and structures between us and the fire. We were never really at risk of it burning all the way to our home, even if the wind changed direction and the fire jumped the highway and headed toward us.. The only personal impact the fire had on us was the thick smoke. It burned our eyes, noses, and throats. We couldn't see the far side of the yard through the fog-like smoke. The sun couldn't pierce the smoke to charge our solar electric power system.
A Chinook helicopter dips water out of a pond at the golf course

The National Guard was called in to help the weary fire-fighters, who's numbers were spread thin over the 103 wildfires burning in western Montana in late August. Chinook helicopters dipped water out of the nearby lakes and ponds with large canvas buckets hanging from a cable underneath; a 'cup' of water around 1,500 gallons at a time. Watching from across the valley it seemed hopeless each time the water trailed out of the bucket onto the fire. Like a drop of water sprinkled on a campfire. But slowly the fire lines stopped advancing as the helicopters circled back and forth between fire and water, hour after hour after hour.

A helicopter drops water on the fire.
From the Stonehenge Air Museum at the golf course:
"Day 12. 8-23-15
They have been steady again today. There are 3 helicopters going now. Wind has picked up again and so has fire. They are making a round trip every 4:00 minutes. With all three copters running that means 4500 gallons times 15 = 67,500 gallons an hour when they are in the air.
Warmer weather predicted this week so looks like they will be going hard.
Sure glad the Governor called on our National Guard"

A Chinook helicopter hovering over a lake.

The helicopter on the left has just left with water, and the one on the right is
coming in for water.

Full of water, ready to go drop it on the fire.
It's very well coordinated where they are to take each load of water.

The potential for fire at our property became more real when a timber company started logging just off our western boundary during the fire east of us. There are strict rules for loggers during fire danger. They have to stop work at 1 pm (because humidity levels drop in the afternoon and increase fire danger), they have to have fire-fighting equipment on site, and they had to leave someone to watch for fire or smoke for at least two hours after they quit for the day. We were still concerned. We moved valuables to one of our kids' homes 70 miles away in Kalispell.
The valuables we moved were pictures/photos, journals, financial and tax papers, memory cards and flash drives, and laptop computers. Here at home we put hunting rifles, chainsaw, tools, and similar items in our camper. If we had to evacuate, we'd drive that out. Those things are valuable to us, but they are replaceable. We moved our rototiller, garden tools, and wheel barrow to the center of the garden, farthest from potential flames. My canners went to the root cellar. Now we could only wait, and cough and choke on the smoke, which seeped into the cabin despite our efforts to keep it closed up.
An airplane drops fire-retardant slurry in a backdrop of smoke.

A black & white photo from the golf course cameras.

After two weeks of fire and smoke, the temperature dropped and the rains came. And came and came, in the wild, crazy way of unexplainable excesses of dry and wet, heat and cold. After a couple of days of rain the fires were reduced to a few wispy columns of smoke from hot spots that continued to smolder. For the last week, it has rained nearly every day, sometimes all day. The grass has the first green it's had in about two months. Our valley has heaved a huge sigh of relief and sits, exhausted, recovering.
7,200 acres of forested mountains along the east side of our valley are charred. In my life time it will never look like it did, but the forest is a renewable resource, and my children will see it in it's green beauty again.  The cost to fight just this one fire:  $6,200,000.

In accordance with the recommendations for properties in wildfire-prone areas, over the last dozen years we cut out the pines and other extremely-flammable vegetation within 30' of our house. We thinned those beyond that, out to 50' to 75' from the house. We pruned branches up until they were 10' to 12' above the ground. The reason for this is that a ground fire rolling through won't 'climb' a tree like a ladder if there are no low branches for them to catch. A ground fire can have flames 6' to 8' high. The forest is littered with pine needles and flammable plants like Kinnikinnick and Juniper bushes.
In a roll-over the safest place is to be in our house. Our cabin is built with Larch logs, which take longer to ignite than the surrounding dry grass. After the fire rolls through we would have time to escape from our house if it begins. Second-best place to go would be the center of our garden. We could scoop out a depression in the dirt and lay our faces in there for better and cooler air. Hopefully we would be far enough from the heat of the flames. 
Smoke is one of the deadliest aspects of a fire, but super-heated air can fry your lungs and kill you. Flames are less likely to be what kills. Obviously if we had a chance to safely evacuate that would be the best plan. However we'd want to make SURE the route ahead of us was safe before we started out. We have three miles of a one-lane dirt road winding down through forest before it hits a small paved county road. The possibility of fire blocking the road is a danger, and if we tried to return to our home the fire might have blocked the road behind us as well. If we're not sure we can make it to safety, we'd hole up here.
I've been told that our root cellar would be more dangerous in a wildfire roll-over than staying in our house or going to the middle of our garden. Something about the duff on the ground and roots burning underneath causing smoke or heat that could kill us in the root cellar. Yet that was the first place I thought of as a safe place in a fire.
Crown fires burn the tree tops. We watched the fire burn trees on the steep mountain slope. Like candles, one right after another would flare up and send flames 20' or more into the air, and the next one above it would go up, then the next. Wildfires can create their own wind and send embers and burning twigs ahead of them to start new fires. Ash and burned twigs landed all over the golf course at the foot of the fire.
Our biggest danger at home is a crown fire that would throw burning debris onto the roof of our cabin. Even with the evergreens cut back so far from the house the flying embers can travel quite a ways and land on our roof. We have aspens and willows in the yard, but they are much less flammable. If a fire approached and we had time, we'd grab the chainsaw and cut them out as well.
Our gardening efforts suffered this year. Since we don't have a well we rely heavily on the rainwater that usually fills all of our tanks and barrels in early summer. We were not able to haul enough water to keep the garden in good shape in 100+ degree heat and extreme aridity. We weren't able to pick huckleberries up on the mountainside since the road up to the berry patches was closed because of the fire. We normally pick 6 to 9 gallons a year. We don't know yet whether the berry bushes escaped the fire. Hundreds of acres of berry plants graced the side of the mountain below where the fire started.

Huckleberries (like a wild blueberry) that we picked last year.
Fortunately most years we have an abundance of foods to preserve from our garden, foraging, fishing, and hunting, and some things have accumulated over the years. This will give us a good chance to clear out and eat those foods, and hopefully next year will be a normal year and we'll have lots of delicious food to preserve again.
And that's the concept behind prepping (preparedness) and food storage. It's there when a person has lean years... for any reason. A lot of people focus on world-wide and political or economic conditions regarding preparedness, and here we had a situation right here at home between the drought and the wildfires, which affected our ability to provide food for ourselves. This winter we'll eat from the extra we preserved over the last few years, along with the buckets of flour, grains, sugar, etc. that we stored. And over the next couple of years we'll replenish what we need to use this year. 
We in this area are emerging from the drought and wildfires to begin living again, and to get back to the normal activities of this time of year, such as firewood cutting, bow hunting, and getting the garden ready for the winter. We were very lucky compared to other places. In Washington, California, and Idaho they had dreadful fires. Homes and lives were lost. We lost none of either here.

Billowing smoke behind the golf course
Photos courtesy of and used with permission from
Stonehenge Air Museum at Crystal Lakes Golf course
Fortine, Montana

A similar write-up on my blog at Mother Earth News can be read here
Please leave comments or questions below, or email them to


  1. What a frightening experience to endure. Glad your preps came in handy. That's what it's all about.

  2. Great read! We had the smoke from the August fires, and our beaches were almost useless because "our" water was claimed by Washington State. Thank you, Columbia River Treaty. But on the plus side it was a great garden season. Let's hope your berry patches come back and maybe there will be tons of morels in the spring. Best wishes, you are brave people.

    1. Yes, it sure was a smoky end-of-summer. I'm glad you had a great garden season! I'll post an update next year when we find out if the berries come back! :) Thank you!

  3. Hello: I like to read your blog and have bought at least one of your prepping books. I enjoy prepping. I've tried to figure out where you live in relationship to my childhood home which was Stryker, MT. Do you know the place? We lived there after WWII and returned to vacation almost every summer. One summer included a trip to Mt. Marston....I think it's the same lookout we visited if it's up the Stillwater River. Anyway, if you live in that part of the country, you are truly in the wilderness. Even, today, it's not highly populated. Might have something to do with the cold and snowy winters (which people seem to rather visit than live in). But I loved it and miss it between visits. My grandfather worked for the Great Northern through the war and until retirement in the early '50's. The Empire Builder used to stop in Stryker to pick up trout for the diner. I think Fred Ripley, at Fish Lake, brought them to the train, as he had a fishery and resort (up the Stillwater from Stryker). I remember the steam locomotive coming through town every week, toward the end of the steam era. When we first went there, no one had electricity. A few years later, the REA came in and things brightened up a little. My dad and mom taught school at Trego several years and my nursery/kindergarten/first grade were spent in the Stryker one-room school house. Ah, memories..... Would love to hear from you. Kathie in Odessa, WA.

    1. Hi Katie! It was a pleasure to hear your stories of the past in our area! How often we've wished the Empire Builder stopped at Stryker so we wouldn't have to go all the way to Whitefish to board it! We've thought of asking if they would do a whistle stop there! Yes, the winters are seemingly endless here! We're up on the mountain a ways and the snow doesn't melt all winter. It gets kind of tiresome after a few months! But then suddenly one day you wake up and spring is here, and the snow dwindles a bit each day. The road gets muddy, first in the sunny places, then in the shady places, then it just seems to dry out overnight. You can't beat the summers up here, other than the relentless mosquitoes the first half of the summer! Thank you so much for writing! Feel free to email me at any time, too! :)