Up in Smoke
Tales of Devastation, and Neighbors Rallying to Help
By Pat Hill
Oct. 8, 2012
Summer 2012 has witnessed a devastating fire season across the West, and southwest Montana has not escaped. Two large forest fires that blew up in late August, the Millie and Pine Creek fires, will burn until the snow flies, according to Forest Service officials, with the Pine Creek blaze tragically claiming 5 homes, along with vehicles and outbuildings.
The Millie Fire, burning in the Gallatin National Forest southwest of Bozeman, began with a lightning strike on Aug. 28. That fire has burned 10,425 acres and was 75 percent contained as this publication went to press. The human-caused Pine Creek Fire began the next day just south of East River Road in the Paradise Valley (near the small town of Pine Creek). That fire stands at 8,509 acres and was 51 percent contained.
While the cause of the Pine Creek Fire is under investigation, reportedly a man working with a backhoe in a Pine Creek subdivision started the blaze about 2:00 p.m., after the blade of his backhoe sparked on a rock. The man reportedly tried to stop the blaze himself and was severely burned in his attempt. Fire crews responded with ground and air resources quickly, but with the infamous wind that often blows in the Paradise Valley, the blaze rapidly grew into an inferno that forced the evacuation of the town of Pine Creek within 30 minutes, destroying five homes and eight outbuildings. Luck, hard work and fast action by firefighters helped save much of Pine Creek, including the school, church, and Pine Creek Lodge.
“I was in the basement inventorying liquor when a staff member came down and notified me of the fire,” Rose Cashio, owner and manager at Pine Creek Lodge, told the Pioneer. “When I went up, the corner on East River Road and Pine Creek Road just exploded into flames. The fire looked like it was right on us. The scariest part was getting all the people [at the Lodge] out. We evacuated immediately, and went east about a half a mile and just watched it burn.”
Pine Creek Lodge employee Leigh Dicks, who lives just across the Yellowstone River from Pine Creek, was not working at the Lodge when the fire erupted. She had gone into town to the Living-ston Farmers Market, which she helps to run. Leigh said she got news that a fire had started and the Pine Creek Lodge had been evacuated, then left the Farmers Market. She soon found herself just down the road from the blaze, helping to evacuate her landlord Scott Allen's property on Deep Creek, just east of Pine Creek.
“It was like World War III,” Leigh told the Pio-neer. “The wind was blowing hard. It turned that fire into a giant nuclear cloud. You could tell when the flames hit structures…the color of the smoke would change.” Leigh agreed with Cashio that “the scariest part [of the fire] was being that close to it.”
“I thought the Lodge was going,” Leigh said. “It made me very sad. Cashio thought she heard propane tanks at the Lodge exploding, and issued a statement on Facebook that the Lodge was lost.”
“We thought we were losing the place,” she said. But the explosions Cashio heard were coming from exploding vehicles on the property adjacent to the Lodge; that property sustained extensive fire damage. Pine Creek Lodge lost one cabin, the roof of the espresso bar, and had smoke damage in the café and kitchen areas.
“We got to come back two days after the fire began for 30 minutes,” Cashio said. “We grabbed all the food we had left to donate to Loaves and Fishes. We did pretty good—it was a freakin' miracle. I thought for sure it was gone. I've been through a fire before, but nothing like this.”
Beth O'Neill told the Pioneer that she was in Glacier National Park when she got a phone call about the Pine Creek Fire. She got on a computer in West Glacier and googled everything she could about the fire.
“The only information I could really find on the fire was on Facebook,” O'Neill said. “I felt so helpless when I thought it had burned down.” O'Neill said that when she found out the Lodge was still standing, she dropped everything and made her way to the Paradise Valley to help out. She's now working as a barista (and doing carpentry) at the Lodge, where she said “we're going to freshen things up, and even add a new menu.”
Helping out has been a key issue during the Pine Creek Fire. Three Park County High School students even helped raise about thirty thousand dollars to help victims of the fire during a benefit event they organized in Sacajawea Park in Liv-ingston on Sept. 8.
“Pine Creek rallied together,” added Scott Allen, whose property Leigh Dicks helped evacuate the day the fire ignited. “An irrigated hayfield really saved our property. It forced the fire around us. Firefighters and slurry bombers hit the fire hard…everybody in Pine Creek threw their sprinklers on, and Pine Creek Lodge is an icon of the valley. We're all glad it was saved.”
After the fire ripped through Pine Creek, it made its way into the high country of the Absaroka Mountains, where it continues to burn, and will probably keep burning until the snow falls, according to fire officials. The situation is the same on the Millie Fire, which threatened but did not destroy structures, but did close access to popular forest service areas like Hyalite, Leverich, Cottonwood, and Little Bear Canyons north of Bozeman. Access into those areas is now allowed.
We've done some really good work [on the fire] now,” Millie Fire Information Officer Jennifer Myslivy told the Pioneer. “We anticipate burning within the perimeter of the fire only at this point. The cooler weather is helping.” She said that the Millie Fire has moved into the South Cottonwood drainage, allowing firefighters to do hand-line and hose-lay work on the ground.
“We'll burn 'til the snow flies,” said Myslivy, “and that situation is the same across the entire West.”
To help those affected by the Pine Creek fire, tax-deductible donations can be sent to the Park County Community Foundation, PO Box 2199, Livingston, MT 59047. Memo: Pine Creek Fire Relief Fund.