What Do You Do When Your House Burns Down?
The Pine Creek Fire Destroyed More Than Forest

BY DAVID S. LEWIS

Oct. 8, 2012

East and south, the sky is still choked with smoke, as it has been since late August. Perhaps by the time you read this, with any luck, snow will have finally doused the flames. Yet we’ve been shrouded in smoke for several weeks now, smoke of varying density depending on the wind. The sun rises and sets in blazing crimson, a crisp burning circle in a sky muted by the aftermath of a disaster, as if seen through  a thin red veil (you can look directly at the fiery core without shielding your eyes). People stop in their cars, pull to the roadside and take photos, because it’s so strangely beautiful—and what power is this, so fierce and awesome, that not only devours houses, buildings, livestock, vehicles and the material possessions of a lifetime, but transmutes the image of the sun?

The day the Pine Creek fire erupted, it was all you could think about, with plumes gushing from the valley, a mushroom cloud dispersing and hovering over everything (see photo above and cover).

Yet on the ground, where the fire worked its will, it was a personally devastating reality. On Main Street, out on the sidewalk, a restaurateur painted a scene vividly, with words, that brought it home. Over the course of that troubling conversation, he explained that a couple had come in for breakfast, sat down, and waited silently for their food with the kind of distant, hopeless expressions on their faces one imagines resulting from the devastation of war.

They had just lost their home to the fire.

Not long before, at the time photos you see in this publication were taken, a photographer on the other side of the valley from the fire arrived back at his car and found a woman there with a spotting scope. When he spoke to her, she told him she believed she was watching her house burn somewhere in the enormous cloud of smoke.

We might put ourselves in these people’s shoes for just this moment, safe in our homes still standing, and while feeling grateful for what we have, and have not lost, imagine the sudden and then long lasting ordeal they have to face. Actually, we can’t imagine it, unless we’ve been to war, or lost everything, because the fire ripped up and discarded all that they had except family, friends, and whatever they could salvage.

They had nowhere to go, we said to ourselves on Main Street that morning, and when they did, prevailing upon friends or relatives, they had to start all over again, the position in which, these weeks later, they still find themselves.

It’s the kind of disaster that puts things in perspective for we who have the luxury of watching from afar. Thank God, at least, that with all the destruction, no human lives were lost. As a long-time Pine Creek resident told us, an eyewitness to the flames who escaped the devastation but whose neighbors were not so lucky, homes are rebuildable, lives are not. One would have to dig down deep though, after being routed by a forest fire, to somehow find consolation —being so suddenly and violently traumatized.

We would be remiss if we did not convey a sense (garnered from various eyewitnesses) of the heroic, determined and sustained actions of firefighters who worked aggressive-ly and courageously to protect life and property, often at the perimeter of homes, saving them from ruin, in heat that can melt the buttons on your clothes.

A September event at the Miles Park Bandshell, prompted by high school students (who decided to convert a benefit they had planned for a trip to Europe into a fundraiser for fire victims) raised a goodly sum, a tribute to the people of a community. The business manager of the fire relief fund tells us, though, that the need is ongoing, and so those of us who were not able to contribute earlier still have an opportunity to help our neighbors. 

The fund’s committee will use monies raised to help people directly affected by the Pine Creek Fire meet human needs that include food, shelter, medical supplies, bedding, clothing. Other needs  would be related to clean-up—removal of trees and other debris that threaten household safety. Preference will be given to low-income applicants and the uninsured. Long-term needs the fund will address may include repairs to homes and heating systems.
(Funds will not be used to help compensate organizations or businesses for losses in revenue incurred as a result of the fire.)

If you can spare a few dollars, or ten thousand, consider helping your neighbors. Those seeking assistance in the aftermath of the fire may apply for grants on the Park County Community Foundation website: pccf-montana.org. The application deadline is Oct. 15, 2012. So do not delay. Contributions are being accepted until further notice.

For more on the fire, see page 18.

 

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