My family’s cabin has always been in danger at Glacier’s Edge

As we looked toward the red smoke among the forested hills, we saw the warning of the coming apocalypse in slow motion. Roadside signs, framed by the sculpted peaks of Glacier National Park, warned of “Fire Activity Ahead” and “Caution Helispot.” Dead, branchless trees, relics from earlier wildfires, spiked the hillsides. However, we continued to speed north, ever closer to the billowing serpent of smoke devouring the sky.

On July 21, a bolt of lightning started the Hay Creek Fire in the whitefish range in northwestern Montana, which quickly grew to over 200 acres. In spite of firefighters’ efforts, the blaze quickly spread through arid timber and quickly emerged as one of the greatest threats facing Polebridge and the nearby entrance to Glacier National Park.

There is a deep connection between me and this place and the fires that rage here. It was here in this dreamy and untamed valley, where my grandfather spent his childhood, fishing for bull trout in pure waters, back when fires were extinguished on sight. My grandmother won his heart by angelically bursting into song on a mountaintop one summer during the Depression when he was working at Glacier’s Lake McDonald Lodge.

I was born in Minnesota, but Grandpa always returned to this corner of Montana, eventually purchasing land here with his life savings, and then building an off-grid log cabin with a neighbor utilizing a simple hand pump. My childhood was spent bushwhacking through thick mountain forest with Grandpa, catching fish, gathering huckleberries, and splitting firewood with an ax as tall as my skinny 12-year-old frame.

I found an assemblage of animal bones in a meadow near the cabin one day. I noticed the knobby protuberances and used my imagination to identify faces amongst them, as unplugged children would. Then I painted eyes, noses, and mouths on each bone, with one small dog on a rib as a puppet. The puppet show my grandparents saw is something they talked about for years.

My mom delivered the news to me when I got home from high school one early September afternoon in 1988: Red Bench Fire had charged from the hills and Grandpa’s cabin was gone, reduced to ash, along with his fly rods and his nearly complete collection of Louis L’amour books. Outhouse was all that remained.

Young Aaron prepares logs for the next campfire while his grandfather’s cabin is under construction.
In his youth, the author prepared logs for the campfire near his grandfather’s cabin, then under construction. (Photo: Aaron Teasdale)

The site was blackened, so they rebuilt a simple cabin. Things were different—the surrounding woods were gone and views of the mountains improved. Grandpa only made it to that little cabin a few times before his heart failed him on his final road trip there.

I used to go to the cabin every other day as an adult, just as my grandfather, my aunts, my uncles, and cousins had done in former generations. There were occasionally pieces of melted glass or some other artifact from the old cabin scattered around, including a couple of those puppet bones. My mind was still clear in my mind as to their faces, which were barely visible but still adorned with faded and distorted paint.

The cabin is where I learned how little one needs in this life to be content, with a screen-porch-turned-bedroom over looking regrowth pine and fir trees. It’s also where I learned about the unalterable power of natural forces.

One more blaze consumed the mountains in 2001. I cleared grass from around its walls and removed everything flammable, as a roaring Moose Fire crashed down the hillside. There have been many fires since those ones fell short, nearly destroying Lake McDonald Lodge and blackening large areas of the landscape, turning some of my special places into nightmarish death zones. Although the flowers were gone, in the decades that followed I saw them return in kaleidoscopic carpets. I have seen large flocks of woodpeckers eating insects on dead trees. The owls nest in snags, laying their eggs, and then raising their downy owlets.

Suddenly, I was at the doorstep of another wildfire. Within 48 hours of its start, the Hay Creek Fire had consumed more than 500 acres of dry montane forest. The fire spewed smoke into Glacier Valley and across the valley to our cabin, only four miles from our cabin and Polebridge. If the wind blew right, the fire could cross the valley in a single day.

At the local community center, a log building in a clearing carve out from the trees, my wife and I attended a fire meeting that night. Approximately 80 people attended, mostly area property owners and firefighters from the Forest Service, Park Service, and Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. Fuel brakes and hand lines were discussed by a procession of men in cargo pants with shield-shaped belt buckles. “I honestly don’t think the probability of stopping this fire, to be honest with you, is going to happen,” said Mike West, a firefighter in steel-toe boots and a yellow work shirt impossibly dirty and fire resistant. This will last until the snow falls and the weather changes for the season.”

Afterward, he explained the magnitude of the fire. According to West, it is likely to be difficult to get more resources in here with what is happening nationally. Rob Davies, a district ranger with the Forest Service, said officers won’t be enforcing the usual campfire and illegal camping regulations, because the Forest Service chief had mandated that agency efforts be aimed at suppressing existing fires. A huge number of fires is burning simultaneously in the United States — currently there are 97 large fires and 25 in Montana alone. The Western United States is said to be in the same boat which means you’re constrained to “order what you need, use what you have.”

Fire departments are not going to attack the fire front-on, West explained, and they are planning to limit helicopter water drops, which involve scooping up water from a river’s surface and releasing it into the flames, to protect the lives of firefighters.

Fire warden Lincoln Chute stated, “It has been a bad season for firefighters – two days ago four firefighters were injured after flames blew back and struck them in the face. “We have had two critical injuries caused by smoke jumpers.”

Fire crew leaders, including Mike West with mic, speak at public meeting in the remote valley's community center.
Fire-crew leaders, including Mike West (with the mic), speaking at a public meeting (Photo: Aaron Teasdale)

As part of the fire preparations, the fire officials urged residents to make necessary repairs to their homes. Contrary to what many imagine, it’s not flames that ignite most homes its embers carried on fire-generated wind that can pelt a structure in bursts. West told the story of a house two miles from a fire that burned when an ember landed in combustible materials at its base.

Chute told the students, “It’s time for you to do your prep work now.” “Prepare yourself.”

I did my best with my wife to fix the cabin back at home. I saw everything differently when I was outside, with keener eyes, now that I am aware of an out-of-control wildfire bearing down on me. Axes were used to ax grass and examine trees. The bottom of the cabin could be covered with gravel, and we could caulk the cracks that could let fallen embers get in. With steel sheets skirting the cabin’s base, we plan to build a sturdy structure. Thankfully, the roof is already metal — a good thing. But overall, I saw the log cabin and its wood deck and how easily embers could fall and stick in flammable places. Fire country is populated by many structures that are not designed to withstand fire.

The problem is widespread in the West. People who are furious about wildfire are also rancorous. Forests haven’t been cleared since the forests were established. A fire in their home has left them desperate for answers. They are not unlike those unknowing people who move to Montana, usually after their chickens have been killed, or after their garden is raided, and discover that there are grizzly bears. I would like to welcome them all to the world.

By clearing trees, vegetation, and anything combustible, we can “harden” our homes to wildfires. In addition, we can construct fire-resistant structures. The fire will not go away without these measures. As gardens require water to grow, so do western forests. For them to thrive, they need fire as well. Even wetlands such as those within the Florida Everglades can support plant diversity.

In spite of one century of fire suppression, today’s average burned area in America is five million acres, up from two million acres in 1980. Several million acres have burned throughout this year, according to the Interagency Fire Center. Scientists estimate that there were somewhere between 20 and 50 million people before European settlement. In other words, we still have a ways to go.

We must reorient our relationship to wildfires as a society to get there. Building on fire-dependent ecosystems or asking firefighters to risk their lives to save them is no longer acceptable. It’s the way our structures are built and the preparations we made that will protect our structures from fire – and fire will come. Those who burn don’t have anyone to blame but themselves. Moving in means accepting a certain amount of risk.

I’m well aware of this equation. In the two-million-acre Lolo National Forest, a few hours south of the cabin, my home is surrounded by a sea of trees. My motivation for moving here was the vast, undeveloped landscapes of the American West. After leaving our 130-year-old town center home five years ago, we moved into a wildland-urban interface. Our family has climbed the hills to watch helicopters battle fires just a few miles away for the past few years. Pine needles are kept out of our gutters and we thin the trees that surround our house. In the meantime, my friend who works on wildland fires came around recently and said, after looking around for a few minutes, “Well, at some point, this entire neighborhood will burn.” He had a smile on his face (all firemen love big fires).

I agree with him. As with hurricanes, earthquakes, and other planetary forces of nature, fires will change the landscapes we know and love. They will destroy things we find beautiful—and, in time, replace them with other things we find beautiful.

People from Illinois commented on social media when the Hay Creek Fire was announced, “Polebridge is one of our favorite places to visit when we visit Grand National Park, and I feel genuinely heartbroken when I think about its possible loss.”

In fact, many people do not realize that what they see now is the result of earlier generations of fires that swept across land and time like waves to shape the landscape.

When tourists visit Polebridge, they often admire the scenic meadow framed by mountains. I am able to see that at one time the meadow was not a meadow at all; rather it was forests, because our cabin sits at its northern edge. Red Bench turned the woods into a skeleton forest, with charred trees standing, their blackened trunks jutting out from the land as porcupine quills. The trees have been slowly falling over time, some for decades, their holes carved by woodpeckers containing generations of tree swallows and mountain bluebirds. The silvery and prone animals can be seen still lying about in the glades, littered across the ground.

With so many decades watching fires, I have begun to understand, at least in some small way, how they shape the landscape. My eyes are overflowing with patchwork quilts created by flame – forests of all ages and heights, old snags peeking out from beneath carpets of younger trees, and old growth lying in wait for next season’s fires.

Across the river from our cabin lies a patch of land dotted with forty-year-old lodgepole pines, a fire-dependent species with a mind to burn (the seeds inside their serotinous cones are coated in resin that melts only when exposed to flame). We skied in to the cabin last winter, and one of my sons mentioned that the trees, which for years had felt impenetrable as dog hair, were finally starting to feel like a “real forest” as they grew and became 30 or 40 feet high.

You will eventually find yourself in a clearing that looms giant in those lodgepole thickets. There stands a huge Douglas fir, centuries old, its thick, flame-resistant bark charred and black from wildfires that predate the arrival of the white men. They decided that fire did not belong in this valley because of their hubris and fear. A deep furrowed bark and a silent power can be felt when you put your hands on Grandfather Tree’s branches. I heard Silas tell me recently that Grandfather Tree needs to survive Hay Creek Fire more than anything else. The view from the cabin was much better, as I assured him.

The cabin, with new additions, surrounded by regrowing forest and backed by the thickly forested Whitefish Range.
The author’s cabin, surrounded by regrowing forest and backed by the thickly wooded Whitefish Range (Photo: Aaron Teasdale)

There’s a backcountry lodge near Gunsight Lake in Glacier National Park built a century ago with great expense and effort. The city was destroyed by an avalanche more than a year later. A huge avalanche path led to its construction at its base. There was no understanding of how the mountains worked back then, just like we have been building and developing throughout the country without understanding the larger natural processes we affect, and that we are affected by.

In the path of flame, we are unprepared. When the fire loomed on that visit, my main concern was gathering whatever we wanted to bring with us back to civilization. I looked into every drawer, every cabinet, and every corner to determine what was important. Then I reached for my grandfather’s coffee cup, my grandmother’s cookbook, a picture album made by our family with pictures and news clippings about the Red Bench Fire, and the cabin journals we’ve been keeping for generations. In my twenties, I drew caves and trails still hidden in the woods on old topographical maps of the area, which were taken along with anything made by hand.

Our last minutes in the cabin were spent at the ashes of my mother’s unmarked stone that I had placed there. Nearby were the ashes of her brother, my beloved uncle. Their love for the cabin and the land here was comparable to mine and Grandpa’s. Climbing up, I placed my palm against the stone and thought briefly about how ephemeral things are in our lives-trees, cabins, and people we love-and how we try to hold on to these things despite the current of the great river.

The cabin’s memory-stained logs catches my attention as we load the truck. I wonder if it will be the last time I see them. My boys were barely taller than the meadow grass when they played with the rusty, yellow toy truck beneath the cabin. Seeing my grandfather, mother, and uncle was a wonderful experience for me. Around an autumn campfire, I saw my young children standing naked and innocent. Then I saw a young boy from decades earlier, carrying a bag of treasure. When I returned to the cabin, my wife was waiting. I picked up an old animal bone from the porch shelf and brought it back to my car. After that, we disappeared into the smoke as we drove away.

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