Mont., USA — Smoke hung heavy Thursday over this western Montana town where most businesses have closed as fire crews battle a voracious forest fire that has threatened numerous homes along the western edge of Seeley Lake.
Montana National Guard specialist Charles Sabodski stood guard at Boy Scout Road that leads to those homes. “Most everyone has left,” he said. “It’s not very pleasant right now.”
Among those who left are Chicago lawyer Jean Maclean Snyder and her family who come annually to enjoy the family cabin — a structure built in 1919 by her grandfather, Rev. John Maclean, her father, Norman, and his brother, Paul.
Last week, when the fire was ignited by lightning and began racing toward the lake, the Snyders were forced to evacuate and faced a decision hundreds of others were confronting — what must evacuees leave behind with the fear that they might never see it again?
“This has been an incredible experience,” Snyder said in a brief telephone call Wednesday as she and her family were heading to Missoula to fly back to Chicago. “The force of nature is so much more compelling in the West than it is in Chicago.”
The blaze is part of the larger Jocko Lakes forest fire, which has charred more than 23 square miles since it started Aug. 3 about 50 miles northeast of Missoula. And it was partially contained as of Thursday.
Montana is afire — as it often is this time of year — but this year seems different. Record heat and a low snowcap left conditions extremely dry. And when lightning strikes began in July, the infernos erupted weeks earlier than usual.
“We are prepared for the worst, and people should pray for the best,” Gov. Brian Schweitzer said this week on his second visit to the Seeley Lake fire.
Schweitzer has declared a state of emergency, and how much acreage will be burned is anyone’s guess. Officials said Thursday that the Seeley Lake fire could easily keep burning into September — when traditional early fall rains usually help snuff out any lingering blazes.
On Thursday 13 wildfires were burning across western Montana, with nearly 400,000 acres consumed and hundreds of firefighters battling the blazes. Last year more than 1 million acres were burned.
National Guard troops set up a roadblock on state Highway 83 that heads north along Placid Lake and into Seeley Lake and were allowing only area residents, fire crews and support personnel to pass. Two miles north of the roadblock, the fire camp sprawled along the hillside behind Harper’s Lake.
Dozens of tents were pitched beneath and next to pine trees and behind catering trucks and fuel trucks. Hand-made signs were tacked to fence posts leading to the camp, thanking the firefighters for their work.
More than 100 miles to the north and west of Seeley Lake, Alan and Sallie Gratch of Evanston, Ill., had faced the same choice as the Snyder family did.
When the Brush Creek fire began advancing on their nearly century-old two-room cabin early on Aug. 3, a sheriff’s deputy roused them at 3 a.m. and gave them four hours to pack and leave. “It was terrifying,” Sallie Gratch said. “He said, ‘The fire is showing erratic behavior and it’s over the ridge. You’ve got to get out.'”
The Gratches in 1981 purchased their land, which included a rundown cabin. A decade later, they contracted to have the building, located 30 miles north of Whitefish, restored and it has been their summer residence since.
“We had a scare once before, but that was at the end of [a] fire season, not this early,” she said. “We knew we had to leave because if the fire came, we would have had no exit.”
They are now staying with friends in Whitefish. “This has been an amazing experience to see everyone come together,” Gratch said.
Several other fires — some with colorful names such as Tin Cup, Chippy Creek and Fool Creek — are blazing in other parts of Montana, prompting evacuation orders near Billings, Plains and Darby.
The state’s largest wildfire, north of Plains, had burned 79 square miles by midweek. Residents of about 50 rural homes had been ordered to evacuate.