By JEN SLAYDEN
If it takes an act of God to fill up the usually vacant church parking lots on my side of the mountain, I think he has spoken. For in a brief period of twelve hours we felt an earthquake and our little community witnessed the hillside behind West Riverside spark up like a firecracker on steroids.
The church parking lots were brimming with activity. There were people sitting in lawn chairs, on hoods of cars, and the tailgates of their diesel pickup trucks, some donning various beverages and most with cameras, gathering to witness the sheer unbridled power of Mother Nature.
Mondays are usually not that exciting in my town, at least for those of you who don’t live here. As a matter of fact, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday aren’t that exciting either. Weekends are a bustle of activity with the people heading up the Blackfoot to recreate. But Monday….Monday was a different kind of day!
It all started at 6:21am, when my husband and I thought we felt something shake the house. Half asleep, I just dismissed it as the trains, only we usually hear them when they connect and disconnect cars, sometimes obnoxiously early in the morning. But then it happened again. I casually mentioned that it felt like an earthquake, but then nothing more ever occurred and we went on with our day. Only later did I learn about the two small earthquakes that shook between my neighborhood and Clinton.
Approximately twelve hours later, a little after 6pm, a fire was reported burning in the neighborhood of West Riverside, lower on the mountain and just a few blocks from where the historic Club Chateau burned down only four months ago (SEE PHOTO LEFT). I was in a rehearsal when the fire began, and had plenty of messages as I got out shortly after 7pm, checking up on my family (Missoulians, you are AWESOME!) I was concerned about friends who live close to the location of the fire, and my daughter who was playing with a friend in West Riverside.
It was an interesting sight to watch history unfold before me….beginning from town where I only saw the vast billows of smoke, and then around East Missoula where I spied the flames. The next thing I noticed was the helicopters flying over carrying buckets of water from the Clark Fork River. Seems like this show was going to be a big one. We Missoulians love a bargain, (just ask MIM’s Coupon Queen) and this wildfire was free entertainment. Hoards of vehicles lined the freeway as cars stopped randomly to take shots of the fire. The whole thing looked surreal and the strong, dry breeze that was blowing wasn’t helping the fire efforts.
My oldest son and I hopped on our bikes and hit the pedestrian path to check out a few areas of the fire. I realized from a new vantage point how quickly the fire was spreading, the edges of the flames devouring any dry timber in its path.
The traffic was unbelievable. Locals in my community were on their porches and in the streets. Friends in West Riverside that we stopped to visit with were feeling deja vu from 1985, when a fire blazed through the same mountain just a few months after a fire broke out at St. Ann’s Catholic church, destroying much of the church and forcing services to be held next door at Our Saviors Lutheran Church for approximately 21 months.
As we made our way home under the dark sky and glowing mountainside, we witnessed fire engines making their way up the Blackfoot, preparing to protect homes and residents who live in the path of the fire’s fury.
Many of us in this community embrace and welcome Missoulians, as we did last weekend at our annual Community at the Confluence celebration at the old Milltown Dam site. But now is not the time to come to my side of the mountain.
This morning, in the early light, I drove my son into cross-country practice at Hellgate High School. The authorities have put up “no stopping” signs along the roads and highway. I myself will not drive more than needed, and will hop on my bike if I want to go anywhere locally. What we can all do now is let the amazing firefighters and authorities do their job by staying out of the way. And, if you are so inclined, going from the parking lot inside any of the churches to pray for the safety of everyone involved may not hurt, either.
PHOTOS: by Jennifer Slayden
Jen Slayden is a Missoulian who makes her home on the outskirts of town with three outdoorsy kids, a fly-fishing guide husband, and a outdoor loving black lab named Cody. She juggles her time teaching music, life coaching, playing music in her family bluegrass band and taking in all the great recreational and cultural activities that Missoula has to offer. Then she writes about it all on her own website: Find Your Harmony.