Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Emerald Hills Fire Update

I would've done this sooner, but up until just a little bit ago the power was off. Shortly after I finished my last post, all went dark and stayed that way for about 3 hours. I talked to a Montana Power crew working on a nearby substation and had my suspicions confirmed, the fire had taken down a main power line interrupting service to pretty much all of Lockwood. Little by little, the area lit back up in sections but as usual the area where I live was one of the last to get the power turned back on. No problem, it's back on now and I'd much rather have a dark house than no house at all. As the sun sank slowly in the West this evening, the ominous glow just over the hill South of us was an unpleasant reminder of just how close to us this fire is.

So far the fire seems to be moving to the South and thankfully away from the Big J Ranch. I strapped a 5 gallon jug of water on the 4 wheeler just after dark and took a ride partly to see if I could get a better sense of how close the fire was, but mostly to see if any thirsty emergency workers needed a drink. All that I spoke to said that they were doing alright, and that they had people distributing supplies to them regularly. From what I had gleaned from the Gazoo article earlier I was picturing a bunch of cops standing around all day directing traffic with nothing but what they happened to have in their cars when they got the call. Even though none of the several Yellowstone County Sheriff's Department, Montana Highway Patrol, Northwestern Energy, or Yellowstone Valley Electric Cooperative personnel I talked to were particularly in need of my unsolicited services, they all seemed thankful that at least somebody cared enough to check on them.

No problem at all guys, and I'd like to extend a hearty Thank YOU, for doing such a good job getting this under control as quickly as possible and making sure that an already bad situation didn't turn into more of a tragedy than it already is.

This was the view looking South from directly in front of my house just as the sun went down. Too close for comfort if you ask me.

This is another picture of about the same area after dark. The fire's been flaring up like this every so often all night so far. It'll calm down to just a tiny strip of light just peeking over the hilltops, then explode into an enormous inferno when it finds another stand of dry timber to consume.

We went for a drive around midnight to survey the situation and see how it had progressed since I'd last seen it. The traffic had finally settled down to a point where the roads were no longer quite as congested as they had been when I went squeezing between cars on my 4 wheeler earlier in the evening. This is a view of the West side of the actual fire, the picture was taken from the top of the hill on Johnson Lane next to the big water tank.

This was the first picture that Carrie tried to take, before we thought to turn off the flash. The reason I posted it, was to show how much ash is falling out of the sky over the entire area. It's literally falling like snow, and at times I can barely see the yardlights across the road because of the smoke. My eyes feel like they're on fire, and almost everyone is blowing a big wad of black crud out of their noses every five minutes. The whole neighborhood is covered in a thin coat of grey ash, and the thick layer of smoke makes simply breathing a chore. We're just extremely thankful that we're still at home, smoke and all. Our prayers go out to all of those living across the highway that are currently sitting elsewhere, wondering if they still have a home.

I restricted myself to just the immediate area on my early evening 4 wheeler tour since I didn't want to get too far from home in case we needed to evacuate. Most of the blocked off access roads with the emergency personnel I was looking for are within a mile or two of my house anyway. As I mentioned earlier, we did load up and take a drive later on to see how much the fire had spread and decided to check out the area where the fire had jumped I90. Hundreds of hot spots still flickered like campfires for as far as the eye could see on both sides of the interstate, but the eye couldn't see all that far through the inky smoke that blanketed everything. We couldn't see the glow from the fire to the Northeast either, and I wanted to find out if there were a possibility that the fire could sneak around behind us from that direction, so we turned off at Pryor Creek and took the backroad over to Huntley. There didn't seem to be much action in that direction however, so hopefully the crews have been successful on that front anyway. Besides providing another potential path to my neck of the woods, there's a lot of houses between here and there, and I hate to think about how many of them could be in the fire's path should the wind shift.

Anyway, that's all I know so far. This is your favorite live on the scene roving reporter signing off.


Chuck said...

Oh man Justin. That is incredibly close.
Ironically, I fought fires in Montana when I was there in the lates 70s (grunt work building fire lines). Its scary stuff because I know how a wind shift and "crowning" trees can cut you off in a hurry. I was always reaching back to make sure my "baked potato " pack was still on my belt.

I hope your family & property stay out of that monster's path. I hope they kill it soon.

Wulfgar said...

Good luck to you, Justin. Stay safe.

Ken Hayes said...

Hey Justin, Forgive me but can you tell me exactly where Emerald hills is located. Is it the area just West oF I-90 as you come down the hill into Billings from Hardin? Thanks.

Ken hayes in Missery

Justin said...

Howdy Chuck. When I was in high school, a good friend of mine's father was the local fire chief. As a result, I had the opportunity to get in on some fire training with the local department. I know exactly what you're talking about when you say "baked potato pack", only we called them shake and bakes. I remember spending a few hours taking turns practicing whipping it out, putting it on, and falling face first to the ground being sure to tuck it under ourselves all the way around. We only had a few seconds to do the whole thing before 4 or 5 big, burly firefighters would grab ahold of it and shake the hell out of us. If they could pull it loose, you started all over.

It was a lot of fun in that setting, but I wouldn't consider it nearly as much fun to trust my life to a tinfoil bag if it were the real thing.

Thanks for the good will wulfgar, we truly appreciate it.

Howdy Ken, you are correct. Emerald Hills is the area to the West of the Interstate as you come down the hill into town from Hardin. Mostly upper middle class working folks, lots of big houses, lots of trees. It's the kind of place that I'd love to live, fire danger and all.

mark said...

well written blog as you could call it. i am from arizona work at a full time fire department and am a firefighter/EMT,wildland FF. but onto the point. DNRC called people in from all over the western part of the U.S. i am proud to say i was part of that. although when this hit i wasnt doing any fire lines as i work on an engine. water is my best friend. i was on the fire from start to finish. all initial attack. must say it was a very fierce and persistant fire. little touchy at times few close calls but other than that just in a days work. i must say you wrote things pretty dead on as to what was going on. i ended my tour there after 32 days of service. finally got to come home. thanks for being one of those that supported us in what we were doing. although i am sorry that i had to be there