SEELEY LAKE — The early evening in Seeley Lake on Monday would have been a sight to see, though frightful to be a part of:
DC-10s, helicopters and fire crews battling a several-hundred acre arm of the Rice Ridge fire as it tore down a hill toward town; evacuees desperately packing cars, trailers, trucks, with kids and dogs and important possessions; dark gray smoke billowing from behind buildings, reaching over the town with its choking grasp.
First-hand estimates of the fire’s distance varied, from around a quarter-mile to a mile from town.
The National Guard rolled in around 11 p.m., just up from their post at the Lolo Peak fire.
That was only a couple of hours before Gus Batchelder drove up to his house behind Cory’s Valley Market. Or tried to.
“They’ve been saying ‘stay vigilant’ for three weeks,” he said Tuesday, manning the Crescent Mountain Coffee hut off Montana Highway 83. “I just pulled in and the National Guard was there.”
Thankfully, Batchelder’s parents live in a house on the other side of the lake, so he crashed on their floor — along with a couple of other family friends who were in the evacuation zone — before heading into work first thing the next morning.
Business was slow, the highway empty apart from military and firefighting vehicles, sort of eerie in the early morning haze that reduced visibility to around 100 feet and prompted yet another Hazardous air quality designation.
But it’s been slow business for a few days, Batchelder said. Really since the fire started.
“This happened right before Labor Day weekend, which is really a bummer.”
The post office drew a steady stream of visitors who paused to note the fire information board and the printout taped to each entryway, “mail service moved to Milltown,” before turning back, running into a neighbor and running another errand. Most likely not running to Milltown.
Around the southern tip of Seeley Lake, past the Pyramid Lumber Mill adding its own gray-black output to the surrounding miasma, over the Clearwater River bridge, the original smokejumper training ground was now called home by "23 people, six dogs, five cats and one turtle,” said Camp Paxson host Jo Warneke.
“We’re going to put (up) as many people as we’re able to.”
The camp managers, Pi Property Management out of Missoula, made cabins available to any evacuees who needed a place to stay, according to Warneke and her husband Glenn.
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Some were unpacking cars, or drinking coffee and chatting, or riding bikes and playing with the dog.
Valerie Miller, along with her son and mother, were still trying to figure out their plans for the day. Get cleaned up, go into town for some groceries, maybe check in at a fire information stand for evacuation updates.
Miller can’t go into work at the Chicken Coop, because it’s closed due to the evacuations, and her son Parker doesn’t start eighth grade for another week.
“I’ve never really done this before,” Miller said.
Debbie Kittrell ran into the Warnekes at Cory’s Valley Market on Monday, just as the evacuation order was coming in. Her husband, granddaughter and mother were all staying in a Camp Paxson cabin.
“They came up to us in the grocery store parking lot,” Kittrell said. “We’re just so thankful 'cause we had no place to go.
“Our timing was good to buy a half a gallon of milk.”
After the evacuation warning dragged on for weeks, there’s no vindication in actually being evacuated. They’d much rather just go home.
“The risk of losing our home is very scary. Everything we own’s there,” Tracy Snider said.
She had some wedding pictures and important papers, but didn’t have time to grab other photos in the rush.
And she was especially rushed.
Snider’s son Matt Whitman, fresh off his first day as a Seeley High freshman, wrecked his bicycle on the way home, fracturing a bone, tearing a muscle and spraining his wrist. Snider was in the hospital in Missoula when she saw the evacuation order.
She got home just in time to grab the essentials and get out of the neighborhood before sheriff’s deputies closed it down and the National Guard came in to close off every block to the east of Highway 83.
“It’s kind of cool,” Matt thought. “Kind of scary too.”