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Big Creek Forest Fire - Monday July 31st

Tims Emigrant Home
My home and Branford Bike in November 2005
Monday July 31st, 2006 - 4:00 AM

Shouts of "help me, help me" broke my sleep at 4 AM on Monday. I was all alone in an unfamiliar bed at the Super 8 motel in Livingston, Montana. The lingering odor of burnt trees from the Big Creek fire filled my room. I dreamt that I was a passenger in a car, late at night, with a person I knew for many years. He was intent on killing us both by speeding into the concrete walls of a long freeway tunnel. We crashed against one wall and then careened towards the other. My life would soon end; I cried into the darkness for help and awoke from my nightmare.

 
My burnt shop and home
The incinerated remains of
my home and Branford Bike

Alittle after 1 in the afternoon of July 31st Bob Fry, the newly appointed Big Creek Fire Incident Commander, told me that he had bad news; my home and all the outbuildings were destroyed by the forest fire. I was not shocked by the news but I held out hope that the bomb shelter had survived the inferno. Bob Fry arranged for another fireman to escort my friend Erik and I to view the remains and take pictures. On the way up the mountain our escort talked at great length about the bravery and persistence of his fellow fire fighters. "I want you to know that we did everything possible to save your house" he stated confidently. He was personally sorry that my house burned but "we just were not able to save it" he said remorsefully. Unknown to our escort, I was at my home until the flames reached my driveway; four hours after I called 911 for help. The doctor never showed up for the operation and the patient died. His intern was our driver and escort. We traveled slowly up the mountain like a funeral procession. I sat silently in the back seat and bit my tongue in anger.

Front Steps in 2005
My lovely home and beautiful yard in June of 2005
Front Steps
Monday, July 31st, 2006 - 2:14 PM.
Still waiting for a fire pumper truck to arrive...
Front Yard in 2005
Emigrant Peak and my front yard in June of 2005
Front Yard after fire
Smoke shrouded Emigrant Peak and my incinerated
home and front yard in July of 2006
2005 Garage
Garage and warehouse in June of 2005
2006 Garage
Remains of the garage and warehouse
2005 Greenhouse
Geodesic Dome greenhouse in November 2005
2006 Greenhouse
Geodesic Dome greenhouse in July 2006
A word from our $ponsor, Ads by Google
Bomb Shelter
2:26 PM Light smoke rises from the bomb shelter roof

Ibarely recognized the once familiar scenery we passed through on our slow and painful journey up the mountain. Lush green meadows were reduced to smooth patches of black soot broken only by short, charred clumps of grass and stubby, sagebrush stalks. The mountain's slopes, once covered with thick stands of Douglas Fir now stood almost bare; only the seemingly lifeless and blackened skeletons of last weeks lovely and grand trees were left. When we turned into my driveway I knew that that I was almost home. I closed my eyes and imagined what once was; the scent of fresh fir boughs, tall stands of wild flowers gently swaying in the fresh mountain air, the bright sun softly warming my face while a family of Mule deer grazed in the side yard meadow.

 
Branford Bike Remains
The greenhouse and the rubble of my smoldering home. The Fire Chief's truck is behind the greenhouse.
 
Burnt Grassy Meadow
My side yard meadow where families of
Mule Deer often grazed at dusk and dawn

As we turned towards my home I noticed that only one set of tire tracks previously broke the white ash that covered my driveway. I expected to see the long awaited fire pumper truck and a few brave fire fighters standing in my yard squelching the final flames and cooling the remains of my home and business. As we turned the bend I saw that the driveway was empty. My home and Branford Bike were reduced to a pile of still smoldering rubble. Small flames licked against the back wall of the shop while red hot coals glowed brightly where the oak shipping desk once stood. I learned later that the single tire tracks were left by a fireman who stopped by only to confirm that all the structures were destroyed and to turn off the propane tanks. I climbed up the embankment and stood where the entrance to Branford Bike once was. I peered into the basement that was now a concrete fire pit filled with charred shards of crumpled steel and glowing red embers. I raised my hand to shade my eyes so I could peer into the bomb shelter that still stood intact at the back of the house. It looked fine but the intense heat and acrid smoke prevented me from venturing closer.

Around 2:30 PM a green pickup truck pulled into the driveway. After 10 minutes or so the truck pulled away. Our escort later explained that the driver was Mike Graham, the Emigrant Fire Chief and avid photographer. Mike Graham visited yesterday as well. He took pictures of my house as it caught fire and burned.

Wildflowers
Beautiful wildflowers graced the backyard in June 2006
Flowers are gone
The flowers are gone; everything was burned to death
 
Propane Tanks
Back yard view with the still burning
cistern terrace in the background

Istared in disbelief at the destruction that surrounded me. Even the ravages of war seemed to pale when compared to the vicious inferno that engulfed my home and Branford Bike. The destruction was almost complete like in the city of Hiroshima in August of 1945. A single charred timber rose where my deck once stood. Blown out and melted double pane windows littered the yard. A trail of molten aluminum, once a satellite dish, flowed down the hillside. The bark of every tree was coal black and most stood like skeletons against the smoke shrouded sky. The earth was covered with black soot and where the fire burned hotter, grey and white ash. Barely a plant stalk or blade of grass poked above the ash and soot; in some parts of the yard the ground was as smooth as the surface of a pond.

Ironically the scorched propane tanks survived the intense forest fire. So did a few wood planks inside the greenhouse as did the tomato plants there. A Svea camping stove rested intact on the floor of what was the guest bedroom and the concrete roof of the basement bomb shelter. The lawn mower, scorched but intact, rested in the driveway. A coffee can full of fused marbles was all that remained of the guest bedroom closet. More startling was all that was gone. Not a scrap of sheet rock, a shred of copper wiring, one unburnt stud or beam for all were completely devoured by the voracious fire.

Cistern Garden
The cistern terrace garden in late June of 2006
Burned Flowers
The same garden on July 31st, 2006
Carls Home
Carl Anderson's home survived the Big Creek forest fire
Johnston Home
Everett Johnston's Emigrant home was scorched but still standing
 
Scorched Grassland
Scorched grassland greets visitors to the fire zone

Our escort told us it was time to leave so Erik and I snapped a few last photos and climbed into the SUV. I was still feeling numb from the shock of almost losing my life to the firestorm on Sunday. I was now in a state of disbelief; I could not believe that the fire destroyed all my possessions and Branford Bike. I felt luckier than my neighbors whose homes were completely incinerated. At least I had a bomb shelter to tuck my personal items and business inventory in. When the smoke cleared I would come back and empty the shelter. Meanwhile I decided to search for a rent in Livingston where I could live and set up Branford Bike. Within two weeks I thought, I should be packing and shipping orders.

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