On the way to Gardiner, Mont., the sunrise was a surreal red. All day, smoke squatted in town. Walking around on the eve of my writing class, seeing people through the haze, felt vaguely apocalyptic; what I imagined nuclear fallout might be like, or Pompeii after the eruption of Vesuvius. Ash landed on parked cars like snow. My eyes burned.
In the morning, we were taken by boat to our camp on the south arm of Yellowstone Lake. Favorable winds cleared the air, but the Promontory Fire billowed smoke across the way. Occasional flames leapt above trees in candles 200 feet tall.
“Often, people come to the backcountry and have a hard time finding something in the moment to write about,” I said to the class. “I don’t think that will be our problem,” We all turned towards the conflagration that faced us across two miles of sparkling water.
When we’d met for the first day of class, we learned that our backcountry campsite had burned and that we had been relocated to a more protected spot two miles away. For three days there, fire dominated our existence. In daylight, smoke erupted in huge, gray plumes, building cumulus thousands of feet tall. Black, resinous smoke signaled new outbreaks of flame. The fire migrated south, dynamic and hungry. It jumped into new stands of timber, raced along ridgelines. At night the flames were like fireworks. We sat in a circle, mesmerized by the flickering lights, the new surges of orange and whole hillsides glowing red.
“It’s like watching Baghdad burn,” someone said.
Students used the fire as a metaphor for turmoil in their lives. They tried to describe the dynamism and power of the event. Several juxtaposed the quiet serenity and calm of our lakeside camp with the explosion going on next door. We sat with paper and pencil, always facing across the water, exclaiming at new outbreaks.
Meantime, the Park Service evacuated campers around the corner along the southeast arm of the lake. We kept exclaiming how luck we were because the prevailing winds allowed us to stay.
It has been like this all summer. Everywhere I go, fire is there. In July, I paddled the Salmon and Snake rivers. Smoke was so thick one night that we wore bandanas, bandit-style, to breathe. Below the confluence with the Snake, blackened hillsides stretched for miles, with tiny circles of saved structures punctuating the still-smoldering charcoal landscape. If we’d tried the trip a week later, our access launch would have been commandeered by fire crews.
Then in August, I hiked in the Absaroka Mountains east of the Yellowstone Valley. A plume of smoke loomed ominously over the ridge at the trailhead.
“Lightning,” a ranch manager assured us. “Just five acres, and they’ve got it contained.”
Two days later, when we returned, the fire had blown up to thousands of acres. Dense moke filled the valley, flames were visible, and an evacuation notice had been slapped on our windshield.
Even in Bozeman, where I live, the kids’ sports practices have been canceled due to dangerous levels of smoke in the air. More than once a towering cumulus cloud has been visible from my downtown house, clouds built with smoke and heat from wildfires, hunkering in the otherwise cloudless sky. Several backcountry outings in the last months have either had to be canceled, or completely revised, because of fire danger.
Fire has become a fact of life, an ingredient to reckon with every summer, something as pertinent as the daily weather report. In time, I suppose, fire will simply be an accepted part of everyday existence, a force that incrementally becomes woven into our sense of the world. Eventually, we may think no more of fire than we do now of the next weather front. Eventually, perhaps, but I’m not there yet.
I don’t know what it all has to do with climate change, or with decades of not letting fires burn. What I know is that fire is with us in Montana in a way it never was before. And that I’d just as soon have my old sun back to greet me when I crest the pass, heading east at dawn.
Alan Kesselheim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He writes and teaches in Bozeman, Montana.