North Fork Firestorm

North Fork Firestorm

By William Simonsen

The big fire took off near the end of a hot summer when the woods were tinder dry. It was only three years ago but it seems like decades. I was working as the editor of a weekly newspaper in northwest Montana. It was a small paper with a large footprint.

We had a circulation larger than the local daily, but the staff was tiny. We had only a reporter, a photographer, a typesetter, two ad salesmen, a printer and his devil, and me.

I got a short salary based on a 40 hour week and never worked less than 60. So did everyone else. It was a source of pride to us that we consistently beat the daily to the good stories. With a skeleton staff. Week after week. It drove them crazy.

My job was a very educational and humbling experience. I learned every phase, every task, of putting out a newspaper. In addition to normal writing, editing and layout functions, I learned how to run the printing press, how to put newspapers in the coin operated machines chained to the front of grocery stores and how to sell ads if someone got sick. Or got sick of his job and quit.

When that happened I placed an ad in one of the national journalism reviews and suckered another poor fool into coming to work on our sinking ship.

Earlier in the year I had gotten lucky and managed to hire an excellent young photographer fresh from college graduation. Jeff had a towering natural talent, along with unlimited energy and enthusiasm. And he was three-quarters crazy. Rode fast motorcycles. Chased girls either too young or too old for him. He was a good fit for the job.

By August there were large fires burning in this corner of the world. Our fires were too isolated to get much coverage on the six o’clock news which was dominated by the spectacular fires in Yellowstone National Park.

Then a thunderstorm moved south from Canada one night and lit up the woods. Its lightning started a fire on federal land, on a densely wooded high plateau about five miles south of the Canadian line in the isolated North Fork Valley. Because it was tinder dry, the wind so strong and the area so remote, the fire got a two-day head start before anyone knew it was burning.

The North Fork of the river separates National Forest land on the west from Glacier National Park on the east.  A century of litigation had established an imaginary line in the middle of the river dividing the end of extraction from the beginning of preservation.

Up there the river is completely wild, untamed, un-dammed and unpolluted. The park protects it like an old granny protects her grandbaby. It allows no motorized boats on the river, no cabins or houses within a mile of the riverbank — either riverbank, only limited fishing and very little activity of any kind near the river.

The road up the valley is the back door to the park and also serves a remote border crossing used by smugglers of various substances since before the Volstead Act. It is 90 miles of bumpy, dusty or muddy, rutted washboard gravel. The North Fork road easily qualifies as one of the five worst roads in North America. County government has made periodic attempts to pave the road, but the paving plans are always stopped short by the opposition of the residents who cherish the isolation insured by their beloved horrible gravel road. It will probably be turned to stone by geologic forces long before it is paved by mankind.

The residents also hate electricity. And power poles. And wires. There was no power in the valley in 1890, when the first settlers arrived. There is still no power up the North Fork more than a century later. It might arrive a decade or two after the pavement.

Access to the park from the valley is controlled by a couple of seasonal employees who are arguably the most bored park rangers on earth. The lonely rangers had a little log cabin on the park side of the river — across a single-lane wooden bridge built of huge wooden poles back in first decade of the twentieth century appropriately named the Pole Bridge. There is a small town. More of a settlement. Actually, there was only a general store left, the Polebridge Mercantile, at the west end of the bridge. It is the only sign of commercial civilization in the thousand square-mile valley. I do not know why Pole Bridge became Polebridge. It is lost in the backroad-dust history of the valley.

But back to last summer — by the time the Forest Service realized it had a fire on its hands, the fire had burned over 5,000 acres. At least that was the estimate from the pilot of the scout plane. Considering its remote location, the Forest Service decided to mount only a minimal effort to stop the fire. There were only a few small ramshackle cabins without power or running water between the fire and the river.

I interviewed the forest supervisor before we chased the fire. Supervisors act like colonels in war zones. They wield godlike authority. Ed, the supervisor, very puffed up with his own power, said the river would stop the fire. He stated it more like an order than a prediction. He was to pay for his arrogance in the face of fire and wind.

Jeff and I left town, drove the 60 miles to the end of the pavement, then started up the endless twisting gravel nightmare of North Fork Road.

By the time we got to Polebridge, it was nearing sunset. Sane men would have turned around and gone home, but with the logic of firetruck chasers everywhere, we figured if we went back now, we’d only have to drive up the godawful road again the next day.

So we bought some supplies at the Mercantile from the few remaining items on their shelves, then continued north. We got five miles up the road when we were stopped by a Forest Service roadblock.

Jeff and I showed our Press passes. The grizzled old-timer leaning on the pea green forest service truck was less than impressed. He told us this roadblock was as far north as we were going. Period.

He said the wind had come up and the fire was making a run southwest. Directly toward the roadblock.

I stood around and talked to the guy. I told myself I was gathering background for the story I had to write about the fire. But mainly I was postponing another drive on the crappy road. He was from Ohio filling a summer job to supplement his Social Security check by working for the Forest Service.

Jeff was going nuts from frustration at being stopped short of the fire. Young and talented, yes. Patient, no. He wanted pictures of burning trees and towering flames.

I’d been listening to the grizzled old-timer for a few minutes when his radio started crackling and squawking with voices. We listened to the verbal chaos punctuated with words about falling back and getting out of the way.

After a few minutes of panic-stricken radio chatter, a truck came barreling down the road from the north. It did not slow down at the roadblock. It was followed by another truck. Then a couple of pickups. Then came fire trucks, pumper trucks and more pickups, all beating it south with sirens wailing driven by wide-eyed men hunched over their steering wheels. From their expressions, I expected the hounds of hell to appear only a step or two behind.

Between speeding trucks I asked the grizzled old man what he intended to do. He thought for a moment, then said he was heading out. We should too, he said.

I asked him where he was going.

“Don’t know for sure,” he said as he started the truck, “south.” Or Ohio, I thought.

I made a multi-point turn on the narrow road and followed the dust of the Forest Service trucks.

Jeff was now approaching total insanity from frustration. He wanted me to drive farther north — toward the fire. Now that the guard was gone he saw an open road to his photographic immortality. Not me. I figured if the hardened firefighters and grizzled old timers were running for their lives, it might be a good time to follow them.

I calmed Jeff down by lying to him. I told him we were going to find a high spot up on a ridge where we could watch the fire and get some night shots. A convenient lie when I told it, that would prove to be true. Hearing my plan, Jeff calmed down, temporarily.

As we drove past Polebridge Mercantile people had given over to their herd instincts and were stampeding away from the flames  like cattle.

We followed the stampede a mile or so down the road where a second Forest Service truck was parked in a semi-serious roadblock position. Another grizzled old-timer stopped us. It seems like the Forest Service has a large supply of grizzled old-timers. Perhaps they run ads, “Wanted – grizzled old-timers to stand around roadblocks, give faulty directions to tourists and generally sneer at city folks.”

I pulled up next to him and leaned out the window.

Before I could say a word, he said, “You gotta get out of the valley, the fire’s making a run this direction.”

But I knew that already.

I told him about our news media mission. I told him about the crazed photographer in the passenger seat.  I showed him our press passes. He gave me the grizzled old-timer sneer. “You gotta get out of here. Only Forest Service personnel are allowed to stay here.”

I shrugged. Then put the truck into gear and drove down  the dusty road. Jeff picked this moment to come completely unhinged. He began ranting about the pictures he needed to stay and take. Then he began raving about the loss of his career and the student loans I was keeping him from paying off, the fame I was denying him. I slammed on the brakes just in time to keep him from jumping out the door he had already forced open.

I told him we weren’t really leaving and to calm down.

I started driving slowly again as I held onto his collar to keep him in the truck. I threatened to pull over and thrash him if he didn’t calm down.

I was looking for a side road as I steered with one hand, stretched out across the truck cab holding onto the maniac photographer’s shirt with the other hand. We needed a road that would take us up high and away from the path of the fire. I spotted a likely looking road a mile or so along. I pulled onto the road then stopped and grabbed the map. I found the road on the map. It appeared to go west and up a steep ridge, stopping at timberline.

Perfect, I thought. Up away from the fire. Way up high into the rocks.

My reasoning in choosing this strategy was simple, rocks don’t burn, so fires don’t burn above timberline. No trees. No fuel. Got to get Jeff up high. Get a good view of the disaster about to happen.

As we drove up the road, it became a barely discernable double track trail through the woods. The flaws in my plan became clear. If my idea did not work, or if the wind changed and if the fire came this way, we could never retreat back down to the main road and escape. We would be cut off from any escape. As I drove to what I assumed was my doom, I formed a kind of idiotic, desperate plan to work the truck over the top of the ridge and down the other side. Bushwhack the truck over the rocks. I knew it was a stupid idea born of a terrible mixture of fatigue, fear and adrenalin. But it was the only plan I could muster on short notice. Instead of turning around as any sane man would have done,  I kept driving up the deadly road with the lunatic photographer ranting at my side.

He was getting more excited by the minute. I thought I would have to grab him by the neck and shake him again. But then we broke out of the trees at the top of a high ridge.

The view of the fire to the north and the huge mountains of Glacier Park across the river in the dusk was breathtaking. When a large volume of smoke gets in the air, sunsets turn blood red. The snow on the mountaintops and everything else for miles around was crimson. I began to believe my idiotic plan might work. If we didn’t burn to death, we would have a terrific view of the fire.

I got out and found a rock with a view while Jeff ran around from spot to spot talking to himself, laughing, looking for the perfect angle for his pictures of the fire. Jeff said he was thinking about climbing farther up the ridge to an outcrop a couple of hundred feet above us, farther to the west. I told him if the fire turned and I had to make a run for it, I would leave him to barbecue in the flames. Finally he began to settle down. He asked how long we were going to stay. I told him we were probably stranded until morning. If we lived through the night.

I ate some of the food we had gotten at the Merc. Then I settled down to wait.

Sometime after midnight Jeff woke me up by jumping into the bed of the pickup. My first thought was that I had awakened in hell. There was a huge column of fire to the north. It took me a few moments to figure out what I was seeing. Like a sun, a column of fire lit the entire valley and the mountain ranges. It towered above the mountains on both sides of the river. It looked like an enormous, slow motion tornado of fire weaving through the valley, moving southeast. Reports from experts a few weeks later said the firestorm at its peak was close to a mile wide. We watched as the winds it generated sucked in what appeared to be small trees at its base and spit them upward on fire. I would discover later that what looked like small trees were actually mature trees over 100 feet tall and several feet in diameter. I heard popping and cracking sounds as the fire moved. The pops and cracks were the sounds of the huge trees exploding from the tremendous heat of the fire.

Occasionally I would hear Jeff’s camera shutter snap. He wasn’t talking. Finally he was quiet. The wind was still blowing southeast, which theoretically, would take the fire across the valley several miles north of us.

I asked Jeff which direction the fire appeared to be moving. He watched the fire for a long time through a long lens, then moved it back and forth across the front of the fire, trying to judge its movement in the dark. It was tricky. There was the blast furnace of the firestorm and there was the contrast of the complete darkness in the rest of the forest. No lights anywhere except the fire. The moon and stars were hidden by the smoke.

Finally, he said the fire was moving east, almost due east.  Then he told me the bridge and the ranger station were on fire.

“I can see the reflection of the flames on the river,” Jeff said.

He said the forest on the far bank of the river, inside the park, was already in flames. Some of the trees that had been thrown into the sky by the firestorm had sailed over the river. In spite of direct orders from the supervisor, the river had not stopped the fire.

I felt sick. I knew what was coming next. I knew there was a huge stand of dead lodgepole pine trees on the park side of the river. There was no stopping the fire now. It would run through the park until it hit the rocks and ice at the top of the peaks clear up on the Continental Divide. It would be as bad as the Yellowstone fires.

Staring at the roiling, towering column of flames I realized the fire was alive. It was breathing like an animal that had run too far. Sometimes it would burn like a blast furnace at the moment oxygen is injected to burn off the slag from the steel. It made the same noise I heard as a child listening the blast furnaces in my hometown on summer nights. On those nights the sky took on a fiery glow and the furnaces roared like crazed man-eating beasts, just like the fire I was watching from the ridge.

Then the fire would slow down for a few minutes and the roar would fade away. Then, after a short time another blast would make the fire roar again.

It had become a huge breathing beast set on devouring everything combustible it could reach. A fire-breathing monster, it would take a bite of timber, sit back for a minute, chew it up, spit huge burning trees into the air, then reach out and  bite off another chunk of forest.

The firestorm continued until dawn, and perhaps beyond, but we used the daylight to get away.

I hoped crazed young Jeff knew what he was doing, that when we got into the darkroom we would have pictures to print.

Our escape the next day was easy. The fire left only smoldering ruin in its wake on our side of the river. We looked up the valley towards Canada. Huge sections, square miles, whole drainages, lay smoking like a devastated war zone. We could see nothing of the bridge or the ranger station, but the store was still standing.

A forest fire does not burn absolutely everything in its path. It jumps around wildly. Sometimes leaving trees standing on a hilltop, sometimes it burns the ridges to bare rock and leaves the valley bottoms untouched. Sometimes the caprice of wind and fire burn the valley bottoms and leave the ridge tops untouched.

It is probably not possible to completely understand anything as wild and unpredictable as fire. Scientists try. They will theorize and model fire behavior in their laboratories as long as there are research grants.

The drive down the long, dusty gravel road was surreal. There were truckloads of men heading north towards the fire to extinguish anything still burning. There were only a few of us heading out of the valley, out of harm’s way.

Jeff won many awards with his photos and soon moved on to a huge metro daily out on the Coast. I wrote stories about the fire full of facts and figures. I had graphs of acres burned and frequency of fires in the Northern Rockies ecosystem. I had quotes from Park Service personnel, Forest Service personnel, community leaders and U.S. Senators. I got an interview with a fire ecologist from the university.

But I wrote no descriptions of the living, breathing beast of a firestorm I had seen that night. I was not even sure what I had seen until one of the experts told me it was a firestorm.

“You know, like the firebombing of Dresden and London during World War II,” he said.

We drove back up to the fire a few days later, during the mop-up operation. Across the river, the fire was still working its way up the steep slopes in the park.

Jeff got some good pictures of the skeletal remains of the bridge and the ranger station. He took pictures of the burned out hulks of trucks and bulldozers.

We found weird little glades near springs the fire had spared. Places where it left green meadows and ponds untouched. There were charred logs swept downstream by the river caught on the remaining bridge pilings like a charcoal beaver dam. Again, Jeff took more great pictures.

There was smoking devastation everywhere. It was the battlefield the day after the battle. Only walking wounded and blackened ground.

The residents I tried to interview were incoherent or reduced to monosyllables. All the grizzled old-timers had strict orders not to talk to the press. The almighty supervisor was on his way to being transferred to a think tank rest home for broken down forest supervisors somewhere out in Pennsylvania. Turns out he had no authority over a fire.

I drove up the terrible gravel road last summer. The wooden pole bridge has been replaced with elegantly engineered pre-fab steel structure. The mercantile company sported a fresh For Sale sign.

The charred forest is growing back. Its green everywhere with little seedling trees and grasses. And I saw more wildlife than ever before.

I looked, but couldn’t find the road we took for refuge in the middle of the firestorm. I thought I would never forget that dirt track. But it has disappeared. Gone. Grown back into the dense undergrowth of a land that looks like it has not changed in millennia.


© 2011 William Simonsen. All rights reserved.

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