For most of us, it’s hard to imagine spending a summer in Missoula without floating the Blackfoot, fishing Rock Creek or biking in the Rattlesnake. And so far this summer it’s been possible for Missoulians to participate in their favorite outdoor activities without donning respirators, as the smoke from burning forests has yet to clog our skies.
But for Kitts McCabe these activities are all off limits, and he is not the only one whose eyes light up when the lightning icon strikes the weather report. He’s ready for this state to burn.
McCabe is a wildland firefighter with Grayback Forestry, a private contractor with a base in Lolo. He and the other members of his crew must be ready to report to base within two hours of getting the call, and thus are effectively penned in by the range of their cell phones. “It’s so frustrating, everybody’s calling me up to go float the river, go climbing, hiking, anything,” says McCabe. “I just have to say no. I got a couple buddies who don’t have enough money to pay their cell phone bills, so they’re literally sitting at home by their land line.”
A large part of the appeal of fighting wildfires is the ability to earn a lot of money in a short amount of time. With two weeks of the official season gone and only four weeks until he starts school, even the option of finding another job is not realistic for McCabe. “Every summer I sublet my room, I throw a chunk of money from tax returns in the bank. I try to live a little more humbly. It works for the present, but most firefighters look to fire season in that it’s not just feeding themselves. You work for two months and it’s going to hold you over for half the year.”
Hoping for fire doesn’t weigh on McCabe’s conscience too much—he’s been doing it for four years now. “Our forests are in nowhere near a healthy state,” McCabe says. “I mean, it’s gonna burn. It’s just a question of when.”
That question may have found its answer this weekend when lightning ignited 23 fires in the Bitterroot National Forest.