Sunday, August 21, 2011

Young Men and Fire

August 'Forty-Nine, north Montana
The hottest day on record, the forest tinder dry
Lightning strikes in the mountains
I was crew chief at the jump base, I prepared the boys to fly

-Cold Missouri Waters by James Keelaghan

Big Salmon Lake -Bob Marshall Wilderness

It's late August in the northern Rockies and, just like clockwork, fire season has kicked into high gear. This years record breaking snowpack has only moderately attenuated the number and severity of natural and man made fires across the inter-mountain West. Back in the "Bob", several spot fires have started up along the South Fork of the Flathead River from Big Prairie to Spotted Bear but the one that caught my eye the most was the fire that broke out on the north shore of Big Salmon Lake. It's burning up slope in the lakeshore area right behind John Williams in the above photo. It grew to 2,600 acres on Friday night. Given the prevailing weather conditions in northern Montana at this time of the year, these fires will probably burn until the fall rains come. Please keep the young men on the fire lines and the smokejumpers in your thoughts and prayers. At best, it's dangerous back breaking labor. At worst, a fire burning upslope through dry timber in steep mountainous terrain can be powerfully persuasive, unrepentant and unremorseful.

Daily Inter Lake Article

InciWeb Report

"Rapid spread up and across the slope to the northeast during the last half of the burning period. Significant spotting up to 1/4 mile and sustained crown runs with wind-driven and terrain induced spread. 8/20 fire making small runs to top of ridge, rolling material down and then runs repeating - areas of reburn occuring - mix of ground a crown fire."

Big Salmon Lake from the Mud Lake Fire Tower (USFS)

Guaged the fire, I'd seen bigger
So I ordered them to sidehill and we'd fight it from below
We'd have our backs to the river
We'd have it licked by morning even if we took it slow
But the fire crowed, jumped the valley just ahead
There was no way down, headed for the ridge instead
Too big to fight it, we'd have to fight that slope instead
Flames one step behind above the cold Missouri waters

South Fork Flathead River

The sky turned red, smoke was boiling
Two hundred yards to safety, death was fifty yards behind
I don't know why I just thought it
Struck a match to waist high grass running out of time
Tried to tell them, step into this fire I set
We can't make it, this only chance you'll get
But they cursed me, ran for the rocks above instead
I laid face down and prayed above the cold Missouri waters

Salmon Forks Camp

And when I rose, like a phoenix
In that world reduced to ashes there were none but two survived
I stayed that night and one day after
Carried bodies to the river, wondered how I stayed alive
Thirteen stations of the cross to mark their fall
I've had my say, I'll confess to nothing more
I'll join them now, those that left me long before
Thirteen crosses high above the cold Missouri waters
Thirteen crosses high above the cold Missouri shore...

Larry the Packer

"We got some action out there, boys"

Flathead Burn

Bob Marshall Wilderness

Fire  to these northern temperate forests is like rain to a rain forest.

The lyrics to James Keelaghan's Cold Missouri Waters are based on the story of the Mann Gulch Fire as told by Norman Maclean's novella; Young Men and Fire. Do yourself a favor and pick up copies of both. They are the perfect compliment to each other. You can thank me later.