Sunday at Seeley Lake Campground, a couple of families sat on the beach while motorboats and paddleboards floated on the water, taking advantage of lake access while it exists.
The usually bustling boat ramp and campground were quiet and full of locals, more like a mid-May Wednesday than a mid-August Sunday.
The lake just opened last week and Don Brand thought it was likely too late for Seeley Lake to see another bump in visitors.
“Bringing the season to a premature end,” was how he put it.
“It’s devastated the hell out of everybody.”
The lake was closed for about 10 days, as planes dumped loads of water on the ever-expanding Rice Ridge Fire. The closure, along with the start of school, will likely bring the summer season to an end, Brand thought, more than a month earlier than usual.
He and his wife Judy have been hosts at Big Larch campground for the last three summers and were evacuated along with around a dozen campers last week. They’re parked at Seeley Lake Campground for now.
The lake closure hit Seeley hard, the Brands said. They had plenty of folks drive in to the campground, learn the lake was closed, and drive out.
Judy was especially worried for a friend who ran a boat rental company. The store was closed Sunday and she hoped the rush at the beginning of the summer would be enough to make up for the end-of-season losses.
The campground, too, was booked solid the first weeks of summer, Judy said, more than usual. But once the smoke came in and especially once the lake closed, it petered out fast.
“It’s made us feel sad,” Judy said. “We had the happiness of hearing the kids playing and families having a good time and now it is just the birds.”
Helicopters are still making water runs in the north end of the lake. The fire management team has threatened to close it again, after incidents of boaters coming too close to the helicopters, vexing the pilots.
Brand said he saw a lot of water runs the last couple of days. None yet Sunday, but they usually come around later in the afternoon or evening.
According to Larry Bickel, a public information officer for the Eastern Area Incident Management Team, they’re serious about the closure warning.
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“People want to get pictures and they want to get close,” Bickel said. “You have to be drunk to do that — to chase a bucket as it’s coming out.
“Don’t be the idiot that shuts the lake down.”
But Bickel, who was manning an information tent outside Rovero’s, had nothing but positive things to say about Seeley otherwise, thanking townspeople for accommodating the firefighters and being invested even when the lake was frustratingly closed.
The fire has been (so far) successfully turned away from town. It continues to head southeast, prompting management teams to start briefing people in the Ovando area on the fire and wrapping fireproof material around cabins along the way.
A strong containment line buffers the fire from Seeley Lake. On Sunday firefighters were starting burn operations along dozer lines in the Morrell Mountain area, sending spires of spot fire smoke into the air.
A few days ago, when the planes, including a retardant-dropping DC-10, were in town, people gathered to watch them drop huge loads of pink retardant and water onto the hills east of town.
“We don’t want these people to get a false sense of security, now that we’re on the offense, that they’re out of the woods,” Bickel said. “We’re in this for the long haul.”
There exists in Seeley Lake a general skepticism about the ever-present air quality news. More than one resident said that the level of media attention to the continuous extreme particulate counts has been itself a little extreme, even harmful.
Don Brand pointed out that they had a nice breeze pushing through the valley, causing air on the ground to be much better than the dome of gray haze that blocked out all blue sky and sun for most of Sunday.
The cover of the Pathfinder, the weekly newspaper based in Seeley Lake, printed a color copy of the particulate graph from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality on its front page, the little line shooting straight up to the dark red Hazardous zone and topping out for several hours at the highest rating.
According to Missoula County air quality specialist Sarah Coefield, Sunday was "the 15th morning of Hazardous air quality in Seeley Lake since August 1st. As a reminder, when the NowCast hits 250 ug/m3, we classify an area as having Hazardous air quality. At 8 a.m., the NowCast was 547.9 ug/m3 — more than twice what we already know to be Hazardous.”
Stacks of the paper sat on the counter at Rovero’s. The clerk shrugged at the graph. It’s not that bad, she said.
“The town has suffered,” Judy Brand said. “Through all the fire and smoke and everything else, it’s a really beautiful town.”