ROUNDUP – The fairgrounds here filled up with the tents and vehicles of fire crews and National Guard units battling the 22,000-acre Dahl Fire in the Bull Mountains, and this canceled two July 3 events: a rodeo at the fairgrounds arena and an art show, featuring local artists and artisans, to be set up in tents down by the Musselshell River.
Nonetheless, uptown at City Park, the eighth annual Roundup Independence Day Extravaganza (RIDE) was unrolling its various activities: music, games for kids, vendors of food and other items, magicians, comedians, and two relatively big name bands, the Texas swing group Asleep at the Wheel on July 3 and on the evening of the 4th the Eagles “tribute band” Hotel California.
But the celebratory tone in town this year was muted.
Seventy-three homes and 161 other structures in the hills either burned to the ground or were rendered unusable, and the emphasis of Roundup’s relief efforts shifted from the record-breaking floods of 2011 to the fires of 2012 (another Bull Mountains fire on Hawk Creek consumed several thousand acres).
Local firefighters, law enforcement officials, people trying to rescue or tend horses and other domestic animals, volunteers serving meals or providing housing or collecting clothes for fire victims – and, of course, the victims themselves – were simply very tired.
Still, Asleep at the Wheel drew a crowd of between 800 and a thousand, and Hotel California attracted 600 to 800. For its eighth straight year, RIDE ended up in the black.
Roundup’s usual exuberant fireworks show on July 3 had to be canceled – local firefighters did not need another blaze to deal with – but there is talk of reviving the canceled Art on the RiverWalk show, and possibly some type of rodeo event, come September.
Fire crews head elsewhere
A few days after the Independence Day festivities, the fire crews had abandoned the fairgrounds and the Cowbelles Corral campground to local swimmers and traveling campers. (There were plenty more fires to attend to in Montana east of the Rockies.)
Along with its flood relief fund, Roundup established a fire relief fund (managed by the local Musselshell Valley Community Foundation) and as of July 9 it had reached $73,000 in donations large and small – and is still growing.
So people now are left to ponder what a difference a year makes in this semi-arid climate. Heavy snow runoff and continuing rains in 2011 filled the Musselshell Valley with water, prompting rapid growth of vegetation, which became fuel for this summer’s fires after precipitation remained either meager or nonexistent over southeastern Montana ever since a late May snowstorm wreaked its own sort of havoc on high school state softball and track and field meets.
The largest fire in the state, the aptly named Ash Creek fire, still was not contained as of July 10. It blew east out of the Northern Cheyenne Reservation on June 25 and has involved more than a quarter million acres. That puts it into a category with a 1984 fire in the Bull Mountains, which burned so hot that, in places, the native pines still have not regenerated in nearly three decades.
Extremes become the norm
A few months ago climate scientists announced that carbon dioxide – just one of many greenhouse gases that trap heat in our atmosphere - reached 400 parts per million (ppm). That’s up from 250 ppm as the age of excessive mining, drilling and burning of fossil fuels kicked in just a century and a half ago.
Montana has always known extremes of hot and cold, wet and dry, and climate scientists insist that individual weather events cannot be attributed to global warming; however, they also project that such extremes are likely to be more frequent and also more severe.
Does that fit your experience? What this portends is more and bigger fires and floods, all over the planet, and stronger winds spinning into tornados or hurricanes. What this means is that “relief” efforts may become not unusual but routine, as all of us adjust to this new reality.