Black Friday

bridger foothills fire

A recap of the Bridger Foothills Fire.

The backbone of the Bridger Mountains looks a little different than it did this time last year—8,224 acres different, to be exact. The shock to most folks came with an apocalyptic plume of smoke on Saturday, September 5th—though the fire’s seed was actually planted days earlier.

In late August, a local thunderstorm rolled through town and delivered what seemed like nothing more than a few lightning strikes and a touch of rain. However, one of those bolts struck a piece of ground that smoldered for nearly a week before it was detected. On Friday, September 4th, that smoldering grew strong enough to torch an entire tree. Then another. By 3pm, the west side of the Bridgers had numerous (though small) columns of smoke rising out of the canopy, and an established fire burning toward the top of the ridge.

The initial responders included four smokejumpers, a load of engines, multiple helicopters delivering water-bucket drops, and air tankers painting the hills with retardant. Hand crews arrived later that night. By the end of the evening, the fire had jumped the ridge and established itself in Mayfield Gulch on the east side of the Bridgers. Total acreage burned was estimated around 400.

Saturday, the weather was worst-case in terms of fire behavior. Temps surged into the upper 90s and winds blew consistently at 15-25 mph. Ridgetops saw gusts in excess of 60 mph. At about noon, things went nuclear, and a black menacing column forced all hand-crew resources to take their escape routes and resort to structure protection.

Amidst the chaos, three helitack members were cut off from their safety zone and called for immediate extrication by helicopter. Pilots made an attempt to engage, but hurricane-like winds and poor visibility proved too threatening. Out of options and surrounded by fire, the helitack crew was forced to deploy their shelters. Out of the three, only two had packed them. In a last-minute deployment, two crewmembers did their best to jam into one shelter. When the flaming front came over them, keeping a good seal was more than a struggle.

The erratic winds blew embers inside the cover and the firefighters continuously worked to push them out as they struggled to breathe. They spent eight minutes inside their fire shelters. Everyone survived.

By the end of the day, the fire had spotted across Bridger Canyon Rd. near Jackson Creek and total acreage had grown to 7,000. On Sunday, fire behavior moderated but burned at a slower pace, continuing to threaten homes. By Monday, it was snowing.

All told, the Bridger Foothills Fire burned 8,224 acres and 68 structures, 30 of which were homes. The majority of this happened in a day and a half. With a weak winter snowpack, we’re heading into another summer with forests primed to burn. No timbered community is immune to nature’s clout, and the blackened moonscape below Mount Baldy should stand as a stark reminder that we are at the mercy of something else. Let’s act accordingly.

Helping Hands

bozeman spirits bridger fire department

Natural disasters aren’t something we can simply plan for. When they hit, whether it’s a hurricane along the coast, a tornado on the plains, or a forest fire close to home, response is largely reactionary. The effects of sudden catastrophes can be devastating—lost homes, forsaken pets, burned back yards—but communities are measured by their mettle. And when last summer’s fire painted the Bridgers black, Bozeman stepped up.

Within days after the initial column rose above the Gallatin Valley, a Facebook page called Bridger Foothills Fire—Info & Resources was created, and immediately saw an influx of traffic. A relief fund was started, and from the very beginning, there was no shortage of Bozeman businesses and individuals willing to chip in.

Donated goods and gift cards flooded in. Pet stores like Dee-O-Gee contributed food, cooking supplies, and links to info on lost pets. MSU clubs offered labor and support. Local businesses held fundraisers, selling hats and t-shirts donning the logo “Bozeman Strong.”

Bozeman Spirits’ founders, Jim and Mary Pat Harris, had a barrel of 1889 whiskey that had been aging for 4.5 years. They immediately tapped enough for 100 bottles, selling each for $86 (for MT Hwy. 86 / Bridger Canyon Rd.), and folks could round up if they felt like it. The promo started on Wednesday, September 30; by Friday, October 2, all bottles were gone and they had raised $10,000 for the victims of the Bridger Foothills Fire.

The Facebook page has now been changed to Bridger Canyon Community Information, and people are still posting on it daily. While fire relief is still getting attention, many folks use the page to share helpful information on current issues such as avalanche advisories, incoming storm predictions, and neighborly networking.

In dark hours, the brightest qualities shine through. Growth and perseverance are learned from adversity and hardship, and enduring these things together makes us all stronger. Thanks for having each other’s backs, Bozeman. This is what a good community looks like. —Corey Hockett

45.74878163756, -110.96280983121