The Robertson Draw Fire burns near the Shetler property. (Courtesy Paul Thomas)
Lorna and Earl Shetler’s place outside of Belfry didn’t seem likely to burn.
The Robertson Draw fire, first spotted on Sunday about 12 miles south of Red Lodge in the Beartooth Mountains, was headed away from their home. The wind direction was encouraging.
The Shetlers had been out of town for Earl’s dad’s 94th birthday in Oregon when the fire first began to spread. By the time they got back to town Monday, the Carbon County Sheriff’s Office had already ordered and lifted an evacuation for their area around Ruby and Gold creeks, though the subdivisions remained under warnings. The couple figured they were safe.
“The fire was way over in Robertson Draw — we weren’t too concerned, we were just going about our business,” Earl Shetler, 60, said.
But with abnormally high temperatures, the stage was set. Tuesday, the winds changed. Hot, dry air buffeted and fueled the flames; the family says the fire moved about 3 miles toward their house in less than an hour. A friend texted to tell Earl that the blaze had jumped into Ruby Creek. Firefighters told the Shetlers they’d have to leave; Lorna went ahead, but Earl said he got the OK from the fire crew to wait a little longer to take care of some final tasks.
“The fire still seemed to be in Ruby Creek,” he said. “Then I could see it come over the mountain into the Gold Creek drainage — and then all of a sudden it appeared on our property. The winds were so high and intense. It swept right up our draw.”
The house sat on a bluff, adjacent to a canyon. The winds were so intense that the flames bounded over that natural trench.
“This is abnormal,” Earl Shetler said. “Now we have August in late June.”
The Shetlers loaded up two trucks when it became clear they’d need to evacuate. Lorna had already left, so Earl took the remaining truck down the mountain. He stopped part of the way down to take some pictures.
“I pretty much watched our house burn down,” he said.
The couple stood over the ashy remains the next day. Their son-in-law, Paul Thomas, had come up from central Wyoming to help out.
“If it could burn, it did,” he said. The Shetler home, several sheds and almost all the family’s earthly possessions were gone.
Earl Shetler, a Christian, said he measures his wealth beyond the material, and that the support the family has received from the community in the form of donations and places to stay show he is indeed wealthy in a way “that people don’t measure.”
He recalled thinking, as he watched his house burn, that the fire would bring him closer to Christ, and that one day, Christ would burn the whole world.
The Shetler home is one of eight standalone properties and 13 outbuildings to burn so far in the Robertson Draw Fire, according to the Carbon County Sheriff. At more than 27,000 acres as of Saturday with another hot, dry, gusty weekend ahead, it’s liable to burn fast once again.
“All you need is one little spot to have it go and take off again,” said Red Lodge Fire Chief Tom Kuntz at a public meeting held earlier in the week. “This fire is not out, and it’s not going to be out for a while.”
Kuntz said it’s one of the biggest fires he’s seen — especially this early in the summer — and one of the toughest to fight.
“When we arrived on scene, it was moving, and it was moving fast up the hill,” Kuntz said. “Just from when we got to the Belfry to where we actually got into the fire, you could see the column grow. We had to change our mindset fighting this fire, and we had to think of this as being August.”
This is the theme for not just the Robertson Draw fire, but also several other fires burning around the state — and for that matter, the West. The Deep Creek fire outside of Townsend, now at 4,600 acres and 7 percent containment, likewise caused evacuations in the area. At one point, the winds around Deep Creek Canyon were so ferocious that they spun and downed a helicopter operated by the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, the first heli crash in the history of the department’s Aviation Program. The crew survived with only minor injuries.
And to the east of Red Lodge, near Bridger, the Crooked Creek Fire has torched 5,200 acres of National Forest land.
“Some historic factors came into play — when was the last time someone saw 90 degrees in Red Lodge in June?” said Ken Coffin, a Beartooth District Ranger, at the same briefing on Wednesday.
Two weeks ago, state and federal officials came to Helena to brief Gov. Greg Gianforte on the forthcoming fire season. Especially east of the continental divide, persistent drought had baked in a predisposition to wildfire. Fuel moistures were unusually low, and the existing aridity was exacerbated by plummeting temperatures in February that effectively freeze-dried the soil. By August, the whole state will be subject to an elevated fire risk.
Many of these same factors govern the fires that the state has seen in the last week, said Coleen Haskell, a meteorologist with the Missoula-based Northern Rockies Coordinating Council.
“We know it’s gonna be hot and dry — but more specifically, what I’m keying in on for these high-level events are those ridges of high pressure followed by when they break down,” said Haskell. “That’s our critical fire weather pattern here.”
These high-pressure ridges are coming earlier and stronger this year than others. When these ridges sit over an area, they prevent fuels from recovering humidity at night, desiccating the ground. The fires, as was the case in Red Lodge, just keep burning through the night. On the hot-dry-windy index, a relatively new creation of fire meteorologists, the conditions in the last week reached the 97th percentile, Haskell said.
Thursday in a NOAA climate update, climatologist Ahira Sanchez-Lugo said much of the West is entrenched in drought. Sanchez-Lugo, with the NOAA Centers for Environmental Information, said 88 percent of the West was in some drought as of the most recent report, and 55 percent was in “extreme to exceptional drought.”
The drought has many implications for fire, said Gina Palma, fire meteorologist, on the same NOAA call. For one thing, she said, fuels are drying even more rapidly than usual.
The trend is pushing many areas into an early start to fire season, said Palma, with the Great Basin Coordination Center, U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“In areas of severe or exceptional drought, we are seeing field conditions that we would typically see in July and August,” Palma said.
Fuel moisture has peaked in sage brush and some timber, she said. Grass growth has slowed, and she said that’s one positive development for fire season.
“That is going to be an important note at our lowest elevations, where grass fires typically drive fire season,” Palma said.
Already, big fires are burning in the southwest and even in Montana, and the forecast means more blazes on the near horizon. In this weather, she said, dry fuels are more susceptible to ignition with high heat, strong winds and dry lightning, even in the absence of significant weather, she said.
By the time August rolls around, a map from the NOAA projected the state of Montana would be covered in red, showing the entire land mass is completely above normal for wildland fire potential.
The high pressure also creates a phenomenon where the hottest, driest areas are at elevation, where fuels are heavier and forests more difficult to navigate.
“It’s burning at like 6,800 feet or higher — in a high pressure ridge, that is the thermal belt,” she said. “At night, it is the driest and the warmest area of the fire.”
Haskell describes a 1-2 punch: When the ridges break, it’s as if a bowl of hot air is descending to the surface, creating hot, high-speed winds. In areas like canyons, the winds are even stronger — “like putting your thumb on a garden hose,” she said.
Even the light rains forecasted for Sunday and later into next week will do little to alter these conditions, she said. Relative humidity is still low.
“A 10th to a quarter of an inch can feel really good, but it’s gonna be gone so fast,” she said. “The longer term drought seems to be winning over the short term benefits.”
Another commonality is the presence of human error (or maliciousness): The vast majority of wildfires are human-caused, as was the case with the Robertson Draw Fire. Local authorities say they have a suspect, but the Carbon County Attorney has yet to decide on charges.
“It’s up to each of us to prevent wildfires and reduce the burden on our firefighting resources,” Gianforte said at a visit to Red Lodge last week. “I’m asking all Montanans to take precautions when working or recreating outdoors.”
In 2017, a record 1.4 million acres burned in Montana. The Great Falls Tribune reported total firefighting costs that year at $400 million and the state’s bill at $86 million, an anomaly and the biggest for Montana since 2008. The state’s fire suppression resources were devastated.
But state officials are more optimistic that they can weather the storm this year, at least financially, even as it shapes up to be especially hot, dry and fiery across the West.
Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, one of the Legislature’s chief budget architects, said Montana has $90 million in its fire fund and the piggy bank can afford a season that costs more than usual. He said the fire fund will be close to its statutory maximum of roughly $100 million, and the Legislature “gets really uncomfortable if it has less than $50 million.”
“We’re ready for a pretty bad fire season,” Jones said. “Obviously, I hope it’s not, but it is a hot ugly year.”
Incident reports issued this weekend by the fire teams tackling Robertson Draw and Deep Creek Canyon said the former fire had already cost almost $2 million, with Deep Creek at $1.3 million.
Gianforte has already successfully requested Federal Management Assistance Grants from FEMA, which allow the state to pay 75 percent of eligible costs with federal money.
In an email, Sue Clark, deputy administrator for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, said the fire suppression fund will be replenished with any reversions at the end of next year. Clark also said the Governor’s Emergency Fund will reach $16 million at the start of the next biennium, and that money also can be used for fire.
Perhaps the bigger concern then is the prospect of a fire season that starts earlier, burns hotter and ends later than others before it, devastating natural resources, destroying livelihoods, clouding the air, scarring the environment, all while more and more homes are built in what experts call the wildland-urban interface, which increases potentially deadly human interactions with the forest.
“I don’t mind telling you. It’s disconcerting when you see this type of event staring down your community,” Coffin said at the Robertson Draw fire briefing this week. “Even some of these guys, hardened fire people over here, would probably say the same thing. We’ll be living with this fire for at best several more weeks, if not several more months.”
Keila Szpaller contributed to this story.
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