After the water from Harvey had receded and the winds of Irma calmed Montana was still burning. Over 1,000,000 charred acres. Many of us live in suburban jungles where the typical yard is a quarter acre, we really can’t comprehend such a vast space.

Denis Malone has been saying for years “this whole countryside is going to burn.” He didn’t want that prediction to become reality, but he knew it was only a matter of time.

Like many people who choose a life in a rural area, Malone has a strong connection to the land. He has lived his entire life in western Montana. In 1960 when he learned of a Forest Service job opening in the Seeley Lake area he requested a transfer. He then spent over forty years working and living in the rugged, picturesque setting.

Montana Fires

Photo: Malone’s grandson Luke with the smoke plumes of the Rice Ridge fire in the distance.

One of Malone’s early tasks with the Forest Service was to help rebuild the Morrell Mountain Lookout. The lookout originally built in 1921 is perched at an elevation of 7,796 feet. Malone hauled lumber to the site and camped on-site while rebuilding it the summer of 1962. It serves as the main lookout for the Seeley Lake area and is on the National Historic Lookout Registry. In an attempt to save the lookout it has twice been shielded in a protective fire-retardant wrap. Malone is thankful it survived.

His days and years spent as a caretaker of the forest he loved. Part of his responsibility was identifying stands of timber in need of harvesting and completing the necessary documentation. A forest that was under careful stewardship until the 1980s when environmental groups began suing the Forest Service. His time was gradually shifted out of the forest and into the office handling appeals, preparing environmental analysis for timber sales and working with environmental groups. The groups opposed logging, which was both the industry the area depended on and a crucial part of what managed the forest. Like so many things this is a complicated issue with lots of angles. There is private land and Forest Service land. There are tree huggers and tree cutters. There are a lot of people with good intentions trying to find a balance.

Somewhere along the way, people lost sight of the forest for the trees. Life is like that. It doesn’t take much to get overly caught up in focusing too closely on one thing while losing sight of the bigger picture.  The priorities that become so apparent when forced to evacuate your home may eventually give way to normal. The things we realized were the only things that mattered slip into ordinary and we take them for granted without meaning to.

Fires are a natural event and play an important role in the forest life cycle. The Mountain pine beetles inhabit several types of evergreens found in the area. The tiny beetles play a big role in the life of a forest by feeding on aged and sickened trees which clear the way for younger trees to grow. However, the recent hot, dry summers and the forest full of mature lodgepole pine have contributed to this massive fire season. The good news is nature is a marvel. The pine cones of the lodgepole pines that are dominant in this area are covered in resin. It takes heat to open the cones and release the seeds. So the heat from the fires will open the cones and seed the forest floor with the next generation of trees.

Some fire is natural and restorative, but this was more than that. This fire was devastating. The destruction caused by a fire of this magnitude will have lasting effects. Montanans aren’t looking to compete with the devastation of Harvey or Irma. They understand that the losses can’t be compared. But there was loss. There have been lives lost. Countless animals displaced. Miles of ranch fence line. Herds of livestock. Countless board feet of lumber. There will be lingering health conditions following weeks of poor air quality. The fires in Montana began in June and are just now being tempered by rain and snow.  Hopefully, some lessons can be learned, but Malone fears that “as soon as the smoke clears it will be back to business as usual.” There needs to be a partnership with an understanding that a tree cutter may very well be a tree lover. One isn’t exclusive of the other.

So many people have suffered this summer and we can all learn from it. It is during times of great struggle that people come together and let their differences diminish. They see themselves as part of something bigger than individuals. They see the forest. And it is beautiful.