USA – Scott Edson once lived in what he considered a paradise.
His home-built log cabin just off the Judd Creek Hollow Road southwest of Hamilton may not have been a mansion, but its surroundings were sublime.
“I had a window in that cabin where I had placed my main table and chair,” Edson said. “During the winter — I love winters and snow — I would watch the snowflakes kind of drift down and it was so quiet. It was so absolutely wonderful for the psyche, for the heart, for everything.”
“And now, that’s all changed,” he said.
On July 31, 2016, Edson’s paradise was lost when the Roaring Lion fire exploded. Before it was done, it had destroyed 16 homes, including nine in Judd Creek Hollow, and cost $11 million to fight.
Edson’s home wasn’t insured. He was working at a Boy Scout camp at the time of the fire and lost everything, including two vehicles. For a time, he was homeless.
“Forty-five years of my life was stolen in a snap of a finger,” he said. “I could never replace what I had. Twenty acres on a creek, bordered by two sides by Forest Service.”
With help from the Salvation Army, Edson was connected with a group of Amish who came and rebuilt a house on his land, but he quickly decided he couldn’t live there. Every time he looked out the window, all he could see was black.
“When you put your sweat, blood and tears into something like that, it becomes something more than just a place to stay,” he said. “That was my sanctuary. It was my all, my castle, my paradise and then it all changed.
“I couldn’t stay there.”
That loss of home and familiar surroundings is being repeated on increasing frequency across the west as wildfires continue to grow in size and frequency. Last year was one of the most destructive on record. Nearly 18,000 structures, including 9,360 homes, were destroyed by wildfires that burned over 8.6 million acres nationally.
In Oregon and Washington, entire towns disappeared following devastating wildfires.
No one knows for certain if people will return to rebuild in a place that doesn’t look anything like what they remember.
Kathy Good owned 30 acres in Judd Creek Hollow. Her home didn’t burn during the Roaring Lion fire, but she moved to Boise three years later.
“I lost one section of 10 acres of trees, but I didn’t lose my home,” Good said. “The fire wasn’t the reason I moved. I had already been talking about the fact that 30 acres were more than I could maintain.”
Still, Good said the fire had far-reaching impacts on her and the neighbors.
“I think every single one of us who lived on Judd Creek Hollow basically suffered from PTSD — I really think we did,” she said. “Some of us worse than others … Along with that fact, we all felt a tremendous loss.”
Before the fire, Judd Creek was a destination for some in the late spring who wanted to see lupine in bloom that turned the forest floor to lavender. It was a place where residents expected to see wildlife in their yards and the surrounding forest. And it was a community where you knew your neighbors.
All of that disappeared in smoke and flame.
“After the fire, when you drove in on the road, there was a sinking feeling,” Good said. “It felt as if nothing would ever be the same and, of course, it won’t. A lot of us struggled with it.”
When she drove to her home, Good passed a parcel that had never been developed.
“The fire simply gutted all of those trees, but they stood there like sentinels,” she said. “Horrible, horrible black sentinels standing there. They were still there when I left.”
Good was given about 30 minutes to evacuate. She remembers sheriff’s deputies literally dragging her to her truck.
“In retrospect, I think they were as scared as any one of the fire coming down on them,” she said. “It’s an odd realization that sheriff’s officers could be frightened, but the fire was moving so fast.”
Good had spent several years removing trees infected by pine beetles. She believes that thinning may have been what saved her home.
Beyond the loss of the intrinsic beauty of the location, the immediate aftermath of the fire created a great deal of uncertainty for the neighborhood. State officials warned about potential floods that could occur due to the large amount of land that had been burned uphill from their homes.
“Along with dealing with the fire, we were now dealing with a potential aftermath that we had to do something about in order not to lose more,” Good said. “Realtors told me they thought I had a 50% loss in property values after the fire. It ended up cutting my property value not quite in half. So you build up what you think is a wonderful nest egg and it’s gone. You have insurance for things that are tangible, but not for anything like that.”
Most of the homes along the Judd Creek Hollow Road are now owned by people who didn’t live there when the fire struck.
“Our neighborhood was suddenly gone,” Good said. “We weren’t all friends on the road, but, for the most part, we were able to get together once a year to talk about the road. We were all, if not friends, at least civil … After the fire, all the neighbors were gone and we didn’t know how to contact each other.”
“It was another loss,” she said.
The fire started from a campfire that a group of young people built several days before the blaze erupted. Fire investigators found the campfire ignited roots that smoldered underground before coming to the surface some distance away from the original fire.
Three 18-year-old men pleaded guilty to starting the fire in a plea agreement that required them to pay 10% of their income through this tax year and complete 100 hours of community service for three years.
Ravalli County Attorney Bill Fulbright said two of the three men, Tyler Johnson and Cody Knez, have complied with every part of their sentence. The other, Steven Banks, has found himself back in the justice system.
“They screwed up and started a fire,” Fulbright said. “I have been impressed with the way two of them have manned up and handled it. They have done everything that’s been asked of them.”
When the full restitution is paid, Fulbright said his office will determine how its distributed.
“It’s not a lot of money,” he said.
Right after the fire, Good said she was angry with the young people who started the fire.
“But honestly, I was just as angry at the people who stopped a proposed thinning project that would have allowed the Forest Service to remove some of the beetle-killed trees,” Good said. “I was and still am as angry at that group of people for stopping that project as I was at the kids.”
According to the 2020 Montana Wildfire Risk Assessment, Ravalli County has the greatest risk from wildfires in the state, with six communities in the top 10 for structures at risk for wildfire.