The Lost Summer

“More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke. They're a threat to our children's future.”
    Barack Obama

It's September, it's chilly and raining, and I couldn't be happier. There's been snow at elevations above 5,000 feet (1,500 m). Daytime high temperatures have dropped into the 50s and 60s (10 to 15 C), and it's been near freezing at night. This is all great news, as these are the kinds of weather conditions that allow crews fighting wildfires to make significant progress.

The full harvest (September) moon through wildfire smoke.

06 September: Just before sunrise, the setting full harvest moon made dark and bloody by smoke.

The summer of 2017 has been among the worst on record for wildfires in Montana. It's been hot, really hot, frequently windy, and very dry. Where I live in the Mission Valley we had no rain, zero, from 17 June until 12 August (that's 56 days), when we had a shower that gave us .4 inch (1 cm). The rest of August, through 14 September, brought just .35 inch (9 mm) more. We had periodic thunderstorms, but they brought no rain. With humidity readings in the single digits or low teens the air was so dry that any rain evaporated before reaching the ground. To make up for that those storms brought lightning, sometimes spectacular light shows, that sparked new fires. These can go undetected for days.

In Montana over one million acres burned in 2017. More than 150 fires, from less than an acre to nearly 300,000 in size, filled the valleys and plains with smoke. Monitoring agencies rated air quality as “unhealthy” or worse for long strings of days. Evacuation orders and pre-evac warnings had become common in valleys all around us. Hundreds of people had to leave their homes. Businesses closed. When school started in late August and early September some had to hold classes at sites far from their normal campuses due to poor air quality and road conditions. Homes, farm buildings, and businesses burned. Ranchers lost vast expanses of grass, something many value more than their homes. Farm and “hobby” animals were lost, as were pets and countless wild animals. In August a fire in Glacier National Park closed Going-To-The-Sun Road from the foot of Lake McDonald to Logan Pass, bringing the tourist season to an early and abrupt end. That fire destroyed the historic Sperry Chalet, one of only two remaining backcountry stone lodges built more than 100 years ago.

Historic structures aren't the only heartbreaking loss: two firefighters, a 19-year-old Montana kid and a 29-year-old Californian, died fighting Montana fires.

Smoke: “You Need a Chainsaw”

Geography, wind, and monster high-pressure ridges parked over the region most of the summer conspired to pump smoke from those distant fires into the valleys of western Montana. From the state's border with Idaho to the Canadian line to the north, the valleys line up like traffic on an LA freeway. On a map they appear as one very long valley. Prevailing winds push smoke from the surrounding states into that trough. High atmospheric pressure pushes the smoke down (high pressure is sinking air), so it sits, and accumulates. Add smoke from several massive fires nearby, and you have a large area filled with a stinking, eye-watering soup limiting visibility and creating breathing difficulties for “high risk groups” and, as it gets worse, for everyone else. The Missoula County, MT, Air Quality Specialist (yep, that's really her title) reported several times daily on the region's poor air and offered suggestions for dealing with it. Those usually included staying indoors (making me wonder, “Doesn't our indoor air come from outdoors?”), avoiding exertion or strenuous exercise, wearing a mask of sufficient gauge to filter the smoke's particulates, eventually going so far as to suggest installing HEPA filters or even leaving the area. Several organizations raised funds (or used their own) to buy such filters for classrooms, etc.

A scene near our home: September, with distant hills obscured by smoke, and winter, with some valley fog. Click or tap the picture to toggle between the two.

Over the top? Not a bit. It was bad. One morning at our local library Pat and I ran into a friend and asked what had become the usual question, “How are you dealing with the smoke?” His typical Montanan reply: “You need a chainsaw to cut through it.”

Smoke and Photography

Unlike fog, smoke isn't pretty. Fog doesn't sting the eyes or make breathing difficult. Fog can be silky-smooth, various shades of gray depending on density. In winter fog freezes on things, turning them into sparkling hoar-frost sculptures. Fog can obscure everything, but when conditions are just right fog is a lovely photographic tool (I wrote about this several years ago). Smoke almost never is. It's brown or gray-brown, sometimes quite dark. Smoke filters light much differently than fog. There are stunning photos of the fires and everything that goes with that; smoke, flying embers, burning trees and structures, crews fighting fires, aircraft dumping water and fire retardant. People in the thick of the battle, whether fighting the fires, providing support, or photographically documenting them, have my gratitude and admiration for being very brave and probably a certain type of crazy.

But for the type of photography I like to do, smoke is not helpful.

We visited Glacier National Park near the end of June, before fires and smoke, and despite the crowds filling the road and parking areas, I got a couple of photos with which I'm very happy. And that's a good thing, since I had to be content with those for the rest of the summer. I didn't get out with the camera again until mid-September. We had plans for a couple of trips, and I often venture down into the Mission Valley and surrounding areas when the mood strikes between trips. But fires and smoke changed our plans; we canceled a trip to the Oregon coast and rescheduled one to Yellowstone (we'll do that one next week), and as mentioned smoke limited visibility here in the valley, providing little incentive to go out looking for local photos.

To be fair, Pat and I spent much of June and July preparing work for two multi-day outdoor shows and a gallery show. With July's very hot temperatures, I enjoyed the opportunity to do a lot of that work indoors, in our naturally-cooled house. Also, as crowds now fill beyond capacity the national parks, state parks, campgrounds, roads, and other venues we'd like to visit, we avoid them all during the peak summer tourist months. We do that by getting on the road very early in the day, and trying, with less and less success, to find less advertised, written about, or otherwise well-known locations. My increasingly hermit-like intolerance of crowds and traffic will probably end my photographic career, but I've not yet reached that level of aversion. Getting crazier is something I worry about, but doing that doesn't help.

Fire Season Ends

Not long after we moved to Montana, back in 2003, someone told me Montana has three seasons: Winter, Tourist, and Fire. Truer words were never spoken. Winter ends when it gets around to it. Tourist season starts soon after, usually around the time the Park Service plowing crews get Glacier's Going-To-The-Sun Road cleared and open for the year. Fire season seems to start earlier every year, even when, like this year we've had plentiful winter snow and a wet spring. It takes significant rains, or a decent snow accumulation, to make what the fire crew bosses call a “season ending event”. As I said at the top of this article, we've finally had that, and while the big fires aren't yet out, most are fully contained or nearly so. Evacuated people have been allowed to return to their homes (or, in some cases, what's left of them). The smoke has largely cleared out. Fall color is coming on, and we're heading into what looks to be a nice autumn.

Mid-September, the smoke is clearing in Montana's Mission Mountains.

17 September: the smoke has largely cleared in the Mission Valley; only a light haze obscures details in the Mission Range. A few days ago the mountains couldn't be seen at all.

We leave for Yellowstone in a few days. I'm eager to get on the trail, to get behind the camera again.

September, 2017

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