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On Aug. 6, 2000, Forest Service firefighter John McColgan was fighting another Montana fire in Bitterroot Valley. With his digital camera, he captured a pair of cow elk in the East Fork Bitterroot River, backlit by a ball of flame and a hillside engulfed in forest fire.
Photo © John McColgan, USFS

Chronicle from within the “perimeter” of a Montana forest fire.

By John Flynn

Montana was ablaze during summer 2000. John Flynn’s gripping diary details the determination, frustration and losses of the ranchers who fought for their livelihoods during the 15-day long Six-Mile Fire while fire crews stood by awaiting orders.

Day One: Tuesday, August 15, 2000
After a busy day at the courthouse, I head toward our ranch south of Townsend. A Forest Service fire truck with lights flashing passes me. Smoke is visible at the top of the Six-Mile Drainage. Don Shearer had moved his combine there yesterday and I’ll bet he has a fire in his fields. I follow the fire truck and watch it turn on the Six-Mile Road. Suspicion confirmed. I think about going to help, but decide it’s better to leave the fire fighting to the professionals.

Day Three: I hear the fire is heading into Lower Six-Mile, only a half-mile from our property. I race to the ranch and head up Six-Mile Road. The plumes of smoke tell me that the fire is still several miles away. ...We ride hard and fast pushing cattle out of the trees and down to a fence line. By early evening, the cattle are gathered. Other friends have arrived to assist on foot.

...The fire rages across Dry Hollow and takes Bob Davis’ grain fields in the process. I feel badly for him. He has lost his pasture and his grain. A financial catastrophe. We are left untouched. Fire is not fair.

Day Four: ...I look for ground fire crews or air attack. There are none. This seems like the perfect time to give this fire the death knell. I work awhile and then head to the ranch. Where are the slurry bombers? The helicopters? By late morning, I see the huge plume rise northeast of the ranch. We load the horses and head out.

...We head to the ranch. On the way, we come to two yellow school buses. The fire crews must be out fighting somewhere at least. Nope. The buses are full of firefighters. What gives anyway? At the mouth of Six-Mile, two more school buses full of fire crew and two lowboy trailers with Cats sit. The fire crew stands outside the bus playing hackeysack. I learn that they have been there all day.

Day Five: ...Many fires start to flare now. All of the unattended spot fires that could have been easily handled this morning blow up. What was controllable this morning is out of control. The north wind howls all night...

Find out what happens over the next 10 days. Subscribe to RANGE magazine. Ask for the Winter 2001 issue.

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