There were still two weeks left of my internship, it wasn’t supposed to end tonight. I wasn’t supposed to be packing my things yet.
But it was. And I was. Throwing things into my backpack at random, trying to see by the headlight I’d bought for a camping trip earlier in the summer. What counts as essential enough to pack into a “go bag”? Things I needed? Phone, wallet, keys. Food. Vaccination card. Things I didn’t want to burn? I didn’t want any of my things to burn. I liked my things. But it wouldn’t all fit in my backpack, so choices had to be made.
I’m a graduate student at the University of Montana studying environmental science journalism. I’d spent the whole summer at the Flathead Lake Biological Station, living with and reporting on the cool work the researchers were doing on-site. For a science journalist in training, it was an absolute dream position.
That is until the Boulder 2700 fire started burning near Montana Highway 35’s mile marker 12, on the south end of the lake just outside of Polson. We were just a few miles away, the gate to the Bio Station positioned squarely at mile marker 17. The electricity went out. So did plumbing. My internet access went away, making it impossible to find updates on the fire’s progress.
What counts as essential enough to pack into a “go bag”? Things I needed? Phone, wallet, keys. Food. Vaccination card. Things I didn’t want to burn? I didn’t want any of my things to burn. I liked my things. But it wouldn’t all fit in my backpack, so choices had to be made.
We stayed up most of the night, on edge for hours. The darkness of the night was compounded by the heavy ash in the air. In the morning the imminent danger had passed, but with facilities still out, we decided that we should leave.
We packed up the rest of our stuff into our cars and caravanned to Missoula, which is normally just an hour and a half away. But the road was closed because of the fire, which prompted us to drive for twice as long through the Seeley-Swan Valley. I had never driven that way before, and with no internet, I couldn’t map it. A woman at the Bio Station gave me these instructions: Drive away from the Bio Station and turn right at the burger place. When the road ends, turn right. When that road ends, turn right again. Keep driving until you hit Missoula, about three hours total. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a plan. With another intern in the car and a trunk full of our belongings, I turned the key in the ignition and set off.
At the end of 24 whirlwind hours, everyone had a place to sleep. We were lucky — the fire jumped the highway and several homes burned that night. More when you think of the animals and birds that had to flee the forest. While the investigation has not been formally concluded yet, C.T. Camel, a Fire Management Specialist for the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes’ (CSKT) Division of Fire Management, is confident that the Boulder 2700 fire was human-caused.
That would make this burn one of hundreds of preventable fires caused by people in Montana this year.
Camel told me in a phone conversation that the fire — which occurred on Flathead Indian Reservation land, home to the CSKT — burned about 2,230 acres total, claiming 14 houses as well as 17 secondary structures — things like sheds and detached garages. By December of 2021, the CSKT Division of Fire Management had dealt with 61 fires on the reservation during the year, 48 of which could be traced back to people, said Camel.
Wildfires are a difficult reality of the western United States, and to some degree, are part of the world’s natural regulatory systems. It’s for this reason that many communities practice controlled burns as a way to keep ecosystems healthy. Ignoring the cleansing benefits of fire can be just as bad for forest or grassland health as is a rogue, out-of-control wildfire.