What Really Matters

By Theresa Duncan

Montana's Roaring Lion Fire burned more than 8,500 acres in July and August of 2016. (InciWeb photo)

Montana's Roaring Lion Fire burned more than 8,500 acres in July and August of 2016. (InciWeb photo)

A collective holding of breath was the order of each day. For weeks, county and state officials had been urging caution due to the dry conditions in the forest. Open burning was closed. Perhaps the Bitterroot Valley would escape the summer of 2016 without any major fires.  

On Sunday, July 21, 2016, at 2:15 p.m., a peaceful, sunny afternoon was shattered as the Roaring Lion Fire erupted to life. That day and time is seared into the hearts, minds and nightmares of many of my dear friends. The monster leapt from zero to 2,000 acres in six short, tragic hours. Sixteen homes and the solace of a deep connection to place lay reduced to ashes behind the veil of thick smoke.

Officials had to close Highway 93 because so many trucks and trailers lined the shoulder, waiting to be allowed into the area to help people evacuate. Most of them knew people that lived up Roaring Lion Creek, but not all. Some just came to help. Brad Mohn, the local fire chief, appeared on the news to thank area residents for donations and support, but ask for a halt to their generosity. They had more than they could possibly use.

There were at least three unofficial shelters in town, offering extra assistance beyond what the Red Cross and Salvation Army could provide. People opened their homes to evacuees, opened pasture gates for displaced livestock. Our community came together in an unprecedented fashion, according to one Forest Service official; he had never seen anything like it in his many years of firefighting.

By mid-September, the Roaring Lion Fire burned more than 8,500 acres when a few inches of snow fell, smothering the most active remnants of the fiend. Most homes in the area still stand, surrounded by a ghost forest. Some reek of smoke and fear; others remain whole against a backdrop of grief and loss.

A dear friend who lost her home and nearly all her possessions put it in perspective. “I am learning how attached we can become to things, to order, to familiarity.” She paused. “I am learning what really matters.”

Theresa Duncan holds an M.S. in Environmental Studies from the University of Montana and is currently teaching an undergraduate course called "The Environmental Vision." She lives in the mountains west of Hamilton, Mont., with her husband, John, and golden retriever, Brinkley. Among the pines, she gardens, hikes, bikes, reads, writes and enjoys frequent wildlife visitors. Her writing focuses on the interactions of people and the elements of place.