Thursday, January 5, 2012

the fires of January

The FMO group huddles around a phone early in the morning. It is January 5, and there are fires on the reservation, 50,000 acres at last report. Wind-driven, they are threatening a boarding school and other structures.

A fire in northwest Montana in January is a rare and amazing event. But we have almost no snow this year. It rains on the ski hill and turns to ice. I take my snowshoes to Round Meadow and end up hiking instead. I might get to run on the trail every month this year. Some people are encouraged by this, and by the lack of snow over most of the country. "It's going to be a big fire year," they say.

Round Meadows cross country ski trail, New Year's Eve 2011

In reality, although a lot of people try, there is really no way at this point to predict the summer. Spring rain can drown a season. Lightning can track far to the south, sparing a forest so dry that it is closed to the public. Visitors can be exceptionally well-behaved with matches, or throw burning cigarettes out with wild abandon. Southwest monsoons can come early or linger on the horizon. There's no knowing.

We all volunteer for the new fires. I think about the possibility of spending my birthday on a fire for the first time in 24 years. In the end, three engines go, staffed by AFMOs and a hotshot superintendent. The size of the fires is downgraded to 18,000 acres "due to more accurate mapping", a common occurrence. Light rain falls. It won't last long.

Still, this unexpected winter fire makes me anticipate next season, opening the gate for the first time to let the fuel truck in, the feel of translational lift on an early summer morning, the smell of smoke in the hills. These are the things that keep us coming back year after year. Anything could happen. In a way, we are addicted to this uncertainty, to rumors of lightning and rain. Last season is over. I look forward to the next one, whatever it may bring.

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