Oct 2, 2020 | By Lorea Zabaleta | Illustration by Xixi Qin
Coming back from a weekend of camping last block, it wasn’t a surprise that the air got smokier as I drove further west. Fires have been pretty much a constant this summer and early fall in Montana and the surrounding states. What was surprising, however, was the series of texts that immediately sprang up on my phone as I entered service again: “A fire tore through the Bridgers and the Bangtails. Friday night through yesterday, 11,000 acres and counting. Everyone we know is safe but … letting you know before social media does.”
The Bridger Foothills Fire certainly wasn’t the largest fire this season, nor has it caused the most property damage or worst air quality, yet the photos that circulated of the beloved mountain range where I had been born and raised being devoured by flames filled me with an immense sense of loss. I wasn’t the only one. It seemed the whole Bozeman community was coming together to mourn not just the houses lost, but the trees and the land as a whole — collectively praying that the local ski hill would remain unscathed.
Living in town, there was only a slight chance that my home would be endangered or that we would have to evacuate. Obviously, that wasn’t the case for everyone, including my childhood friend and current Colorado College student, Katherine Seessel ’23. When I returned from said camping trip, while Seessel was on campus, her mother and sister were sitting in my front yard, having evacuated but told that the fire missed their house — barely. I asked her what that weekend was like for her:
“I was really nervous Friday night, but then by Saturday morning it seemed like things were under control enough that I went for a bike ride and wasn’t terribly concerned. By the time I got back from my bike ride, it was a different story. I was calling my mom constantly. She and my sister were loading up art, friends were bringing cars into town, and they had the horses and dog loaded up and ready to go. When they left with the horses, they were expecting to come back and finish up packing the last few things. When they pulled off the freeway, sheriffs told them it was a no-go. Things happened fast. Saturday afternoon, I thought our house was gone. What was even crazier was that on Saturday, as all of Jackson Creek was being evacuated. There were cars lining Jackson Creek, filled with faces gawking at the fire as my family was running from our home after possibly seeing it for the last time. Saturday was a terrible day. I was alone in Colorado, I had crashed my mountain bike, and I thought that I no longer had a home. I got lucky.”
Then, like a miracle, on Monday it began to snow and the fire calmed down, but damage had been done, destroying 30 homes and changing the landscape for at least a lifetime. Even as the season turns and the conditions become increasingly unfavorable towards fire, it’s impossible to forget how quickly the beloved Bridgers went up in flames and what remains.
“From our house, it is wild to look out the window at the Bridgers. It’s just black,” said Seessel.
“Because it’s already snowed a couple times, it just really brings out the contrast – just really shows the effects of what happened for the whole community, especially the people who live up the canyon [who are] being reminded of it every single day.”
Even with the physical threat all but gone in the Bozeman area for the season, the emotional impact remains raw. Seessel told me that even after knowing her house was okay when she drove home after Block 1, she started crying upon seeing the scarred mountains:
“It’s where we grew up, it’s the place that taught me to love being outside, it’s the place that made me who I am. In my lifetime, it’ll never look the same. It’s really hard to think about and to come to terms with.”