Activity on Mendenhall Fire slows as Boulder Valley residents keep watch

Activity on Mendenhall Fire slows as Boulder Valley residents keep watch

Source: Billings Gazette
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SAM WILSON

MCLEOD — Only in the past couple days has a relative calm descended on the Boulder Valley, where homeowners still remain ready to flee after a sudden wildfire blew up last weekend and prompted a temporary evacuation order for the isolated community.

Hot, but relatively calm weather over the past several days has offered much-needed relief for firefighters battling to keep the 1,275-acre Mendenhall fire from encroaching further on the homes and ranches that line the northwest side of the valley.

But last Saturday found resident Tom McGuane and his wife, Laurie, scrambling to move more than a dozen horses, pack their necessities and prepare to evacuate as flames marched across the ridgeline immediately above his home in the scenic valley south of Springdale.

“When we got there, we saw this plume,” McGuane, a local rancher and nationally renowned author, recalled Tuesday. “The majority of this fire was right here.”

He credited the quick response of the Big Timber Volunteer Fire Department with keeping the fire’s footprint confined to its current size. With the roads blocked by emergency crews as the blaze quickly chewed through the bone-dry vegetation northwest of the valley, neighbors were unable to immediately come to the couple’s aid.

“You’re in this helpless situation because your place is on fire, and you see your friends from the community just busting their ass,” he said.

The fire was first reported Saturday at 1:10 p.m., and in just more than two hours had grown enough that officials issued an evacuation order for residents along the single dirt road that winds through the valley alongside the Boulder River.

By 5 p.m., it continued pushing south and reached an estimated 700 acres. An hour later, firefighters estimated it had nearly doubled — although the acreage estimate was later revised down to reflect more accurate mapping.

The couple had no way to rescue the cows that graze on their summer pasture above the valley, McGuane said, marveling that the cattle eventually fled, unscathed, down a burned-out drainage to the west.

He recalled watching the massive smoke plume shift as it was buffeted by winds that seemed to change directions constantly.

“It’s kind of like dealing with a wild animal,” he said. “You just don’t know what it’s going to do next.”

By nightfall, he said the ridge was backlit by the glow of the fire above, while the still-burning coals on the bluff’s face “looked like glow worms at night.”

McGuane has lived in the valley for about 50 years, the majority of which has been spent at his primary residence. As a successful novelist, playwright and short-story writer with a steady source of income outside ranching, he acknowledged that he and his wife worry less about the loss of hundreds of acres of grazing land than many of his neighbors do.

“For about 30 years we ran our own cattle, and we’d be panicked now if that was still the case,” he said.

Although he estimates the fire burned over about 1,000 acres of his land, McGuane is thankful that he didn’t lose any animals or hay fields. And it’s not all bad, he noted, pointing west to a spot up on the ridge.

“That little canyon there has a lot of rattlesnakes,” he said with a laugh, “So I was glad to see fire in there.”

While officials note the danger hasn’t passed, Crystal Beckman, the fire team’s information officer, said crews have begun entering the mop-up phase of the operation. Beckman said Tuesday that portions of the fire’s interior continue to burn, but firefighters made progress over the past two days completing and strengthening fire lines around the perimeter.

“If all goes well, tomorrow will still be a full day of work, and then we’ll evaluate it more,” she said.