On a normal day, my kitchen window frames snow-capped peaks that kiss a big blue sky. The usual panorama begs an appreciative pause or admiring glance, at the very least.
Today the window is closed. There is no fresh air or picturesque view. Instead, the mountains have morphed into an inferno that glows beneath swirly, apocalyptic plumes.
The arrival of another extreme Montana wildfire season has meant homes burned, lives lost, and hundreds evacuated. As I gaze across the smoke-covered valley, I can’t help but sigh at the fact that it’s happening again and that soon my husband, children and I may be joining my parents and many of our friends in seeking a safe haven—again.
In 2013, my husband and I were living in a tiny log cabin with no cell service and just starting to build a life together when lightning struck a few miles from our home. The wind turned the spark into a fast-moving firewall in mere hours. Both at our respective workplaces when officials issued the evacuation order for our area, we hurriedly touched base and agreed to meet at the house to grab a few belongings. By the time I arrived, the fire had blown up and was barreling down the mountain toward the cabin. A sheriff stopped me just shy of our gate and told me to turn around and drive. Fighting tears, I explained that my husband was just inside the gate; I simply wanted to join him in getting our animals out. The sheriff finally let me pass, but said to leave everything and just go.
It’s crazy how the mix of shock, smoke, and adrenaline cloud your brain in an emergency situation. While my husband gathered a few valuables, I grabbed our dog, my flute, a few clothes for myself (sorry, dear hubby, for forgetting yours), and…a banana. Yes—a banana.
It’s also crazy how one close call can change your perspective (on many levels). We were able to return at a later time to transport our horses to safety and our home was ultimately spared; but the remaining scorched trees and blackened foundations serve as an ugly reminder that the unthinkable can happen, and it does.
Realizing that there’s a chance of being evacuated again as the current 33,000-acre Lolo Peak Fire makes its run, I’ve been reflecting back to the summer of 2013. How could I have been more ready? What would I have wished I’d taken with me if the cabin did in fact burn?
While I like to presume I’d be a little more clear-headed than last time, I don’t believe that one is ever completely “ready” to make a run for it. Rather, true preparedness comes with readiness of mind to take circumstances in stride, trusting God to help us through them. And as far as material possessions go, I can’t think of a single item I truly need. A quick inventory reveals that all the things I treasure aren’t actually things at all, but rather my people, faith, laughter, love, memory-making—the kind of stuff that feeds the soul, but can’t feed fires or turn to ash.
Unity is another one of those soul-nourishing things. It’s so heartening to see communities like mine come together with aid and support in the face of crisis. How sad it is, though, that sometimes a natural disaster or tragic event is what it takes to bring about such good neighborliness.
When I look around wondering when the smoke will finally clear and we can all get back to some semblance of normal, I realize that my perspective changes for the better with each fire season. I consider myself extremely blessed to have grown up in the gorgeous Montana mountains, but I no longer take them for granted. A breathtaking scene today might be smoldering tomorrow.
As for my parents, they are seasoned evacuees. In 2000, they nearly lost their rental home when a wildfire came close enough to consume the surrounding outbuildings. The 2013 fire that forced me and my husband from our home drove them out, as well. Evacuating again four years later, they are of course wondering if they are some kind of fire magnets. But they are also taking advantage of the opportunities that come when the regular stomping grounds are all ablaze. My mom is investing in her precious-moments-with-grandkids bank, and my dad is battling the flames as a wildland firefighter.
And so life goes on as we, and all those in the throes of fire or flood, do battle in our own ways. For me, it’s with prayer, stirring embers of compassion, and sharing the message that fire is fierce and unfair: a maniacal hide-and-seeker that howls, “Ready or not, here I come!”
Would you be ready if fire came calling?