HAMILTON – Dave Campbell knows he’s one of the fortunate ones on Judd Creek Hollow.
Standing on his wooden deck, he surveys a scene filled with black.
Alongside his home of 12 years, Campbell’s old faithful work pickup truck has been reduced to a charred shell. The camper that sat alongside it is now just puddles of metal.
In the area where his shed used to stand, his brand-new Kubota sits on blackened wheels among other tangled pieces of metal. The rafts, canoes and kayaks once stored there have simply disappeared.
“But, all in all, we know we’re fortunate that we didn’t lose our home,” Campbell said. “Our heart goes out to those who did.”
The subdivision along Judd Creek Hollow a couple miles up Roaring Lion Road was the hardest hit by a fast-moving fire that roared to life Sunday afternoon southwest of Hamilton.
Campbell said there were a total of 18 homes in the subdivision.
Eight of those didn’t survive the fire, said Ravalli County Undersheriff Steve Holton. The fire burned a total of 14 homes Sunday.
To get to Campbell’s home along the winding paved road, a visitor passes several homes that have been reduced to their foundations and perhaps a chimney.
Campbell, a retired Forest Service district ranger, credits his home’s survival to the open space that surrounds it, some green grass, a stand of barely flammable aspen and a little bit of good luck.
“We didn’t have to do too much to create defensible space around our home after we moved here,” Campbell said. “Fortunately for us, it was already here.”
There was a meadow to west and north. And the aspen stand was flourishing. The nearest pine tree was more than 100 feet away.
Campbell had been around wildfire nearly all of his career. He’s seen homes that have burned and where those fires started.
As a result, he made it a point to keep flammable objects like his woodpile far enough away from his home.
That proved to be a good decision Sunday after the two cords he and his wife had finished stacking that same day burned to the ground.
He also did what he could to prepare his home for the approaching fire.
As soon as Campbell spotted the fire in the distance, he also took the precaution to water down his deck and roof. Both are places where a misplaced ember could get a foothold.
He had planned to stay at his home Sunday with his garden hose ready to keep spot fires at bay until the power went out and his water pump shut down. By that time a wall of fire was bearing down on the edge of his meadow and his wife insisted that he leave.
“That changed everything,” he said. “I could see that the fire was definitely wind-driven moving northwest of southeast. I could see that it was spotting far out ahead of the fire.”
It sounded like the distant rumble of jet engines.
Campbell said he wasn’t worried about the danger from the fire because of the open space and green grass that surrounded his home. His chief concern was the embers that could drop on his roof or deck and potentially start a fire.
“I know that defensible space isn’t a 100 percent guarantee that you’ll save your home because nothing is 100 percent,” he said. “But, if done correctly, it does reduce the potential significantly and it gives firefighters a fighting chance.”
He suspects that after he left his home, volunteer firefighters stopped by to douse any spot fires or stray embers.
Just down the road, Corvallis Volunteer Fire Captain Roger Rahmsdorf was manning an engine staged to protect the remaining homes along Judd Creek Hollow.
Rahmsdorf was one of the many volunteer firefighters who patrolled the back roads Sunday night after the fire first swept through the area.
“I was here at the very beginning of it,” Rahmsdorf said Tuesday. “There were some homes that we found that had a little bit of fire on them that we were able to douse. But, still the fire took some. A few were completely destroyed. They were expensive ones, too.”
In the 16 years that Rahmsdorf has served as a volunteer firefighter in the Bitterroot, he’s seen firsthand how people’s efforts to build defensible space around their homes have paid off.
“The materials they use and the vegetation that surrounds their homes can all make a difference,” he said. “But there are times that it just depends on how the fire comes down. I’ve looked at places with everything nuked all around them and wondered how they survived while others seem to be barely touched and they’re completely destroyed.”
“Sometimes I believe God has a hand in it,” Rahmsdorf said.
Fires like this one offer a teachable moment, Campbell said.
After the large fires that swept through the Bitterroot Valley in 2000, Campbell said many logging truckloads of logs went down Judd Creek Hollow Road.
From his home, he can see several neighbors whose homes survived Sunday’s inferno.
“Our view is going to be a little bit different now,” Campbell said. “That’s something that we will have to get used to. Some of these trees will live and some won’t.”
“We have to remember that we live in a fir-adapted ecosystem,” he said. “I would wager that this wasn’t the first time that fire licked at the base of many of these pines. We were very lucky this time, but we were also very prepared. It can make a difference. I hope that people will take note.”