A Blue Moon

August 21, 2013  •  12 Comments

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I was at home all day yesterday with our cat, Mingo. I didn’t want to leave because I would need to take him with me in case I was not allowed to return. I knew he would be stressed and yowling to high heaven if I put him in the car. There was a fire meeting scheduled at the Lolo School at 5:30 PM. As that time grew closer I went outside and things just seemed mostly calm despite the massive plume of smoke towering over my home. Last I heard the fire was about 4-5 miles west of my location so I decided I could just run down to the meeting and leave Mingo at home. 


The meeting didn’t really provide any meaningful information. I don’t mean to suggest that these people are not doing a wonderful job. They are. The truth has just become clear to me that nobody knows what is really happening and certainly nobody can know what is going to happen.


So, I grabbed a few grocery items and headed back home. As soon as I arrived at the base of my gulch I saw emergency vehicles everywhere and immediately noticed that something had changed. A firewoman stopped me and, after confirming that I was a resident, told me that I had about 30-45 minutes to get out. I have been driving up that gulch for almost 20 years but this was the most surreal trip home imaginable. I passed several other emergency vehicles on the way up each of which stopped me to make sure I knew that this was the final notice and they would not be coming back. When I got home I had a hell of a time catching Mingo. He has been very angry the last couple of days that he has not been allowed outside to fulfill his self-assigned duty of executing various creatures that live around our abode. I put him in his cat carrier and the yowling began. I stood there in my living room and experienced a very strange emotion. I really did not want to leave. I looked outside my bedroom window and there was a spotted fawn standing next to one of many burnt pieces of debris that have been falling in the yard all day. I managed to get a quick photo of her.


She was one of many animals I had seen throughout the day that seemed to be migrating east away from the flames. The day before I had already vacated the house of our photos, hard disks, computers, files, artwork and my wife’s jewelry. Alas, I would have needed a U-haul to take all her shoes. So, I stood there… not wanting to leave. I had this house built for me almost 10 years ago and though the term is overused when referring to real estate it is truly “one-of-a-kind”. Most who come through the front door just stand there with their lower jaw resting on the floor for some time because they have never seen anything like it. I don’t mean to sound boastful. It’s just the truth. All I did was write the checks so I am not claiming ownership of anything other than to be so incredibly lucky as to have lived in such an interesting structure. It is a treehouse of sorts. I have trees everywhere. I live in a forest inside my house.  Most of the wood is reclaimed from old barns or dead and dying timber. I have a tower that is made of straw bale and that fact always baffles those not familiar with this method of construction. The tower has deep set windows with curved walls between them that billow out like soft pillows. Our covered patio has a large stone fireplace where we can sit on cool evenings and enjoy the warmth of a fire. The recording studio I dreamed of owning as a teenager is out on the far end of the house under a grass roof on which I can occasionally hear deer grazing over my head. I don’t use it as much as I envisioned but it’s there and I always enjoyed knowing that. It is a home that could never be replicated even if I won the Powerball and had unlimited access to funds. I read a comment posted on one of many news articles by some individual who felt it necessary to publicly label those of us who built up there in the woods as “stupid”. I hope I always remember this comment whenever I decide to label the actions of another as “stupid”. If my home is reduced to ashes tonight I will never regret having built there in that spot where I sat, just after having purchased the land, dreaming of all the possibilities. Life is about experience, isn’t it? One day while standing next to my barn I looked over and there not 5 feet away was a Northern Pygmy Owl perched on top of a fence post. I thought he was looking at me until he spun his head around and looked right through me. It was then that I learned that pygmy owls have false eyes on the back of their head… a viable defense against other predators. Say what you want about wolves but I felt privileged to find a large pack just outside filling my walls with their howls early one morning a couple of years ago before moving on up the ridge. These things do not happen in town and those of us who have chosen to build or live in places where we can enjoy such things have very good reasons for being there… and there is where I was last night. Not wanting to leave. I thought of my wife’s family. They are from Cuba and left in 1961 never to return. My ex-wife’s mother is from China and she left Beijing in a hurry as a child. Countless others throughout history have had to leave their homes unsure if they would ever return. I suppose it may sound to some like I am over-dramatizing but emotion is emotion and every bit of it is a real experience. I strolled from room to room knowing that I would return yet uncertain whether I would be returning to something more than ash and rubble. For some reason, I grabbed a few random things that were not even that important and threw them in my car. I walked around to the back of my house to take one more panoramic photo of the scene. When I first framed the shot with my iPhone I was too close so I took a few steps backwards tripping over one of the large landscape stones I had placed there years earlier. I fell backwards and narrowly missed hitting the back of my head on a larger boulder behind the first. I stood up and said out loud “Well, that is how it happens!”  I hooked my new sailboat up to the trailer and came back inside to grab Mingo’s cat carrier. The phone rang. It was my ex-wife whose parents are my neighbors to the north. She told me they had left their car with all their photos and other sentimental items left parked in the garage when they went to dinner. They must have attempted to come back home just minutes after I had and were turned back. Nobody was available to drive their belongings out of there. I was sorry that I couldn’t do anything to help realizing that I was likely one of only a few remaining in the gulch. I stopped at the base of my driveway one last time and photographed the plume and the colored tape hung there by the firefighters… a message to other firefighters that this home had already been informed of the mandatory evacuation.


I still did not want to leave. A helicopter with a huge bucket of water hanging beneath flew directly over my home and I could see the water sloshing over the rim. I stepped on the gas pedal. I passed a neighbor's home and it seemed they were just minutes from leaving. Their two kids came running down the driveway. I asked Jack, a 14 year old kid with a work ethic nearly absent from our modern society, if he could drive. He said he knew how but didn’t have a license. Like I cared. Good kid. 


I asked his parents if they minded if he drove Jim and Pearl’s treasures out of the gulch. They didn’t mind so Jack squeezed into my vehicle and we headed back up the gulch. Jack followed me back down to his house. His parents gave me a beer and we all stood there just watching the plume grow. Aircraft were now flying below the ridge lines adding to the impression that we were in a war zone. Unexplainably large chunks of charred debris - things that shouldn’t fly - and fine gray ash continued to fall. We still had yet to see any actual flame but it was clearly time to go. Our convoy made its way south.  I saw two firefighters standing on the side of the road looking up the south fork of our gulch. I pulled over. It was then I saw the flames creeping over the top of the ridge. The wind was still blowing directly towards my home. Jack and the rest of his family pulled up behind me. We all stood with the firefighters watching this red monster climb over the crest of the ridge. It was astounding to see how quickly it all happened. A tree or groups of trees would simultaneously “candle” and then huge "boulders" of fire would tumble down the mountain igniting everything they touched. Soon the entire ridge was an inferno. It was nearly dark so I cranked my ISO to the highest setting and snapped a bunch of photos before finally leaving.


When I got the bottom of the gulch a fireman took my name, address and phone number presumably so I could be informed as to whether I had a home to which I could return. I looked up and saw what I had earlier in the day learned from a radio broadcast was going to be a blue moon. It didn’t look blue to me.  

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we are praying for you and are so thankful you are safe. Homes and material items can be replaced but life and family is precious. What a
n amazing story and so well written. What beautiful photographs of such a tragic event. God bless you all.
Jennifer Sticht(non-registered)
Thank you for sharing this. I am praying that all of you and your neighbors have a home to go back to.
Betty Higgins(non-registered)
Beautiful and poignant. Thank you for sharing
Thank you for your beautifully written and honest story. I don't think people who build homes in the forest are "stupid." As a fourth-generation Montanan, I'd rather live in the woods than anywhere. In the 1950s my grandparents built a cabin in the Seeley Swan, and it's my favorite place on earth--my sanctuary. So--I get it. A few years ago we almost lost this family treasure to fire. In a very uncomfortable way, the experience made me wonder if I have a right to expect the government to save my forest sanctuary. The cost of saving homes threatened by that particular fire was staggering--the firefighters did an amazing job and almost zero property was lost. But what could that money have been used for otherwise? Was saving our family treasure the best use of that taxpayer money? All that said, I SINCERELY hope your home is safe.
Cathy Morgan(non-registered)
Thank you for sharing an intimate look at what people throughout the West are going through right now. It makes all the stories about these fires so much more real, and incredibly heartbreaking. I hope your news is good and your house remains, even though your life will be forever touched by this event.
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