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.
But the wildfires that cloud our western skies with smoke every summer are different. Many environments are more prone to wildfire catastrophes because of climate change. Things like more frequent lightning storms and drier conditions for longer periods leave our natural spaces vulnerable to catastrophe.
Yet, vulnerability to disaster doesn’t mean that disaster is inevitable in every instance. Kristin Mortenson is a Community Preparedness and Fire Prevention Specialist for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC). She says that about three-quarters of the wildfires in Montana are human-caused. Of the 2,570 total wildfires in Montana in 2021, 1,863 were caused by things like fireworks, neglected campfires, debris burns, and even arson.
The number of human-caused fires has gone up in Montana in the last five years. Perhaps worse, Montana is on the low end of the national trend. The Congressional Research Service reports that across the country, about 88% of all wildfires stem from human sources. Climate change and forest health are a big part of the conditions that leave the environment vulnerable to human-caused fires, but the high proportion of fires started by people is hard to ignore.
“The bottom line is, for Montana this year, those [1,863] that were human-caused, very realistically might not have happened at all,” Mortenson said. “Because those are preventable, to some extent.”
The way that this percentage translates into acres burned fluctuates every year. And there are some things that are counted as human-caused fires that are difficult to prevent, like fires sparked by fallen power lines. But according to Mortenson, pretty much all of the human-caused fires — this year, again, that was 1,863 individual fires — are preventable.
“The bottom line is, for Montana this year, those [1,863] that were human-caused, very realistically might not have happened at all. Because those are preventable, to some extent.” — Kristen Mortenson, Community Preparedness and Fire Prevention Specialist, Montana DNRC
Would increased penalties help? Maybe — but enforcement capabilities are a major restriction to this approach. Constantly monitoring people and their interactions with fire across an entire state and beyond is pretty much impossible.
Mortenson’s job focuses on education as a means of prevention. Last year, the DNRC launched a website that helped to hyper-localize fire information across the state. The website helps users track fires and risk conditions in their immediate vicinity, and access clear guidelines about fire restrictions wherever they are. The goal is to make it as easy as possible for Montanans to get the information they need about fire and fire restrictions in order to make safe decisions about fire. Instead of counting on people to work for this information, the DNRC wants to put it right into people’s hands.
“Human-caused fires are the one thing that right now we can influence and actually try and reduce,” Mortenson said. “There's a very tangible thing that we can attack.”
But people are complex, she says. There’s no easy answer for what could stop those 1,863 fires from occurring. If there was, they would have done it by now. Smokey the Bear could hang up his ranger hat and retire.
Proper messaging is one thing, says Mortenson. But in order to truly decrease the number of human-caused fires in Montana, people have to listen and act accordingly.
When I was growing up, my dad and I would go to fire walks on New Year’s Day. It was a special tradition that I loved sharing with my dad and steeped in symbolic significance that I didn’t fully understand as a child.
The instructions were to approach the coals thinking hard about your intentions for the year ahead. Your New Year’s resolution, in a way. The idea was that holding that intention in your mind and heart as you made contact with the coals would empower you to make the changes you sought. Underneath this idea was an assumption, a general truth, that fire changes everything it touches. Indeed it does. And quickly.
This exercise demands a certain degree of awareness. You have to be able to assess what is and have designs on what could be. The fire is not a magical force, but rather, a catalyst for allowing you to see what you have the power to change.
A few hours into our drive away from the Bio Station, my passenger and I pulled into the small Montana town of Seeley Lake. I parked my car so we could get a coffee, stretch our legs and use the bathroom. Our phones were finally back in service, so we each spent a few minutes letting people know where we were.
I caught a glimpse of myself in the bathroom mirror while washing my hands. I was still wearing my headlamp around my neck, and my black tank top had smudges of ash on it.
“Fire is a changing energy.” This idea is scary — it hints at how quickly a lush pine forest can become a mass of charred tree skeletons. But it is also beautiful — that fire can give us new life and rebirth. It can fuel us and help us be different.
Change is good when it propels you forward. It isn’t if you stay rooted in place. If you let it burn you.
As our landscape changes, we must change, too. We cannot wish away the changes in our climate. But we can significantly reduce the number of fires we start. Now that fire has touched us, we need to decide how we want to change, and do so with intention.
The smoke from the Boulder 2700 fire (and likely others) followed us to Missoula. It finally dissipated from the air a week later thanks to some late-summer rain. Nothing has ever felt as good as that rain. The dull ache in our throats lessened and was replaced with the relief of breathable air.
A few weeks later, I drove back to the lake. Highway 35 follows the soft curve of the water, and I let it lead me up along the shoreline and into the burn area. The hearty green undergrowth of the forest had been burned away, revealing the blackened bark of the trees that remained standing.
My breath caught in my throat when I saw all that remained of one house — just a brick fireplace overlooking the waters below.
In the aftermath of the Boulder 2700 fire, I was in awe of the community’s response. Polson-area businesses quickly organized to provide meals for evacuees as well as shelter and wifi. The Bio Station, too, began to do what it does best: the fire hadn’t even been quenched before the scientists started leaving out vessels to collect the fallen ash — hopefully for some future research into the effect of fires on lakes.
This, to me, was inspiring. Humans can be smart. We can be compassionate. We are adaptable. We can change things when we need to. I saw proof of all of our best attributes in the weeks after the fire. The Boulder 2700 fire compelled me to stop thinking of widespread wildfire as a staggering inevitability, and instead face it for what it is — ours to solve.
There is a science to firewalking. There’s a reason you can walk across the coals and not burn your feet. The ash that coats the coals is a poor conductor of heat, meaning that if contact is limited, your exposure to the heat will be low.
So here’s the trick — you can walk safely across the coals as long as you don’t stop. If you keep moving, you’ll be fine. If you stand in place, your feet will burn.
Change is good when it propels you forward. It isn’t if you stay rooted in place. If you let it burn you. Humans set the vast majority of wildfires that occur in our country every year, but we can change that if we try. We can work to understand our changing climate and how to prevent wildfires in these conditions. We can move forward and prevent future destruction. We can be catalyzed by fires to create relief. Life-giving, beautiful relief — like rain on a smoky day.