As we write this, water-scooping airplanes, slurry bombers and about 70 wildland firefighters are doing their best to keep the 18,000-acre Jocko Lakes fire from creeping into the town of Seeley Lake. Just down the road on Interstate 90, firefighters are busying trying to contain the 6,200-acre Mile Marker 124 fire. Meanwhile, a handful of blazes in the Bitterroot, Lolo and Clearwater National Forests in Montana and Idaho continue to contribute to the asthma-inducing miasma that Missoula’s valley is so efficient at accumulating this time of year.
And while recent evenings have been occasionally clearer, and mornings have arrived with a welcome sweater-worthy chill, we haven’t forgotten the parched, blistering heat of July, and we’re hardly out of the woods yet. On Sunday evening, the same day the governor declared a state of emergency over a fire that had doubled in size overnight, gusting winds were snapping tree branches in town, which made us sort of nervous. We can’t help but look up at the cured golden grasses of Mount Jumbo or the haze-blanketed hills of the Rattlesnake Wilderness—with that remarkable plume of smoke from the Jocko Lakes rising above it—and wonder: what if it comes for us?
Missoula proper has had its share of close calls with wildfire over the years. In 1977 high winds caused a power line to spark, igniting a blaze that ran down Pattee Canyon, spurring evacuations and claiming six homes in 55 minutes. Missoulians watched with shock and awe in 1985 as a fire burned uncontained on the north face of Mount Sentinel for six days. In 2003 the Black Mountain fire claimed three homes and 7,000 acres before nearly 1,000 fire personnel were able to get it under control. And as recently as last July we watched an aerial parade of slurry bombers paint red swaths across the face of Mount Jumbo in an effort to contain that fast-moving, firework-sparked grassfire.
Luckily for us, we have plenty of water and firefighters, and we’re not tucked into a national forest like Seeley Lake. We’ve got multiple fire agencies ready to respond quickly, a Forest Service Smoke Jumper Center and a fire depot at the Missoula International Airport. So the threat of a citywide evacuation is pretty much non-existent, no matter how smoky it becomes. But that doesn’t mean we ever want to find out how close it could get.
“I think it just makes good sense to be very, very cautious,” Missoula Fire Chief Tom Steenberg warned when we called this week. “We don’t need another fire right now. That’s really, really something we can’t afford.”