Fire and Rain

smoke haze along the bitteroots

Missoula  From the time we turned towards the Bitterroot Mountains and the northwestern area of Montana at Butte, we could hardly make out the mountains on either horizon for the haze being created by the fires ahead. Forty-five miles south of Missoula in Drummond, Montana we got out to see if we could see anything ahead. The smoke was not acrid. The firefighters had been active for days, but the haze was everywhere around us.

Later in the evening we prepared to drive down our familiar route along Rock Creek Road twenty-five or so miles south of Missoula. The road was closed to campers and fishers. Half was blocked off and troopers were exchanging shifts near the Fisherman’s Mercantile to prevent vehicles from proceeding any farther. We talked to the first trooper when we checked on our trailer in the early afternoon. He felt there had been progress in containment farther down in the Lolo National Forest, but there was still something happening five or six miles in from the I-90, though he didn’t know for sure. That evening the feeling was positive, but the road was completely closed at Philipsburg on the other end of the Rock Creek Road.

We were going to see the changes made over the summer at our friends’ property before we moved the Silver Bullet to Wyoming after a seven-year residence on the creek. We waited while he knelt on his knee for ten minutes to explain to some young Canadians where they might find a location to camp farther down the highway, and chatted with some other hangers on. Finally, he cleared us to drive down to the 22-mile bridge and see what was up.

 

fire along rock creek below Missoula

Fires in the West are common in the dry, heat of late July and early August. We’ve seen our fill of them. We’ve watched helicopters scoop water from the creek in a huge bucket, fly over, and dump than just as we saw employed by firefighters after Katrina in New Orleans. Still this one was different at 8000 acres. Lightning was said to be the cause. We felt like we were driving into it as we neared the smoke plumes rising ahead. Even in the late dusk there were hot shots and fire fighters on both sides of the road still digging out breaks where the trees met the grass in locations that normally we would have looked for Bighorn sheep coming down to feed at this time of the evening. Signs were posted in front of some houses thanking the fire fighters. One home had a cooler outside and a sign calling them to snacks if they stopped anywhere near.

The Weather Channel reported on a tropical storm in Florida and cooler temperatures across the deep south from New Orleans to Atlanta. At the same time the forecaster listed cities in Oregon and throughout the West that were over 100 degrees Fahrenheit and approaching historic records that might be broken later in the day.

Maybe this isn’t climate change. Maybe it’s just the usual, “wait a minute, and the weather changes,” but if this is the new normal, our on the ground report would be that there’s no one on the ground celebrating the change.

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Please enjoy Ringo Starr’s We’re on the Road Again.

Thanks to KABF.

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Climate Change on the Creek

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Chaco sitting in the shallow, warm water of Rock Creek

Rock Creek, Montana   Weather is warm in the middle of the day even in the mountains of the northern Rockies, but at the end of July and early August, that’s hardly a surprise. The nights are still comfortable and the dawn is cool. There was smoke coming up the canyon so there must have been a fire somewhere, but the fire season has not been terrible this year in Montana, and the skies have been sunny all day.

This is our seventh season on Rock Creek in the Silver Bullet. There have been a lot of changes over these years, and we have not been exempt from the impact of climate change. In fact we have a close-up view.

The beetles continue to thin out our tree stand from the rock strewn mountains to the creek. Sixteen trees were lost to them last year. Timber is stacked all over the acreage wedged in short stacks between trees. Longer lengths of pine are stretched along the camp road trying to convince a miller of their value or to find some useful way to contribute. Thirteen new trees have been planted here and there. A former tree planter from the old semi-hippie cooperatives who won a number of bids decades ago from the Forest Service planting throughout the West, spent some time yesterday putting rocks in a wagon, rolling them over, and then placing them around the seedlings for protection. These trees are the scout troop for fifty that are planned. An arborist has been consulted, so now there’s a tighter regimen on walking the trails marked with wood chips and a different view of the brush in the undergrowth with more concern for the reclamation project and less for the threat of fire the same undergrowth represents. Grass has been seeded on some bare spots.

Conserving the land is ambitious. Success for such stewardship is less certain. Water is needed for all of this to grow. Some of the trees already seem challenged. We spent some time witching for water. There’s supposedly a well driller who believes he can get over the bridge now. Witching seemed like magic, so of course I was skeptical, but balancing the copper wire, I couldn’t deny the fact that the copper crossed, feeling the magnetic forces that indicate water below, especially when four of us had the same results in the same spots.

Chaco and I fish Rock Creek, widely reckoned as one of the top ten trout streams in the United States and first in the minds of many fishermen. Three straight hot summers with early melts of the snowpack due to climate change have made Montana streams warmer. We’ve been told about “hoot owl” restrictions on many streams closing them at noon to allow the trout to recover because the water is too warm. On catch-and-release, you have to be quick about getting the fish back in the water in such conditions. Rock Creek is still open, but we noticed the water was warmer by several degrees from our first step off the banks. The water is also shallower than any other time we have been here.

Climate deniers need to get out of their penthouses, private planes and limousines and look around, maybe put their feet in the water, or walk along a forest trail. We can see the West changing right before our eyes, and it’s not pretty.

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