John Schwerma, Bull Mountain John to his many friends, has survived several wildfires during his 20-plus years in the Bull Mountains. Then the Dahl fire took nearly everything he owned.
“When the fire started, I was home,” he said. “I could see the smoke, so I knew the fire was around. I didn’t think it would come that fast. It was six miles away, going in the other direction. So I ran in to Roundup. Then the damn thing shifted. It moved 12 miles in an hour and a half.”
The Dahl Fire started about noon on Tuesday, June 26. Relentless 55 mph winds acted like a blowtorch on the water-starved pines and brush. The flames quickly gobbled up more than 22,000 acres.
“About six o’clock, I tried to go back, and they wouldn’t let me back in,” said Mr. Schwerma. At that point, he had no idea how bad the fire was, nor that the Signal Mountain Coal Mine had been evacuated. “I stayed in Roundup with friends Tuesday night.”
The Dahl fire, as with many fires driven by high winds, did what is called crowning. The flames leaped from the tops of the trees on one side of a clearing to the other, but this didn’t help most homeowners in the path of the fire.
Nature spared one dwelling. Friends and neighbors worked to save one other.
“All that mitigation stuff didn’t do any good,” Mr. Schwerma said. “Two houses that got it (fire mitigation) last year burned to the ground. If you don’t want your house to burn down, don’t live in the woods.
“The fire people did a wonderful job, the best they could,” he added. “It just moved too fast.
They couldn’t even get in on Hampton Road to tell people to evacuate.” Residents were notified by reverse 911 calls and no human lives were lost.
But Bull Mountain John lost just about everything, including his dog, Earnest. He’s been back to his property to poke around and retrieve what he can. His motor home is gone, his car, and storage sheds. But he’s an optimist, stalwartly looking to the future, going on with his life.
“I got insurance and 90 percent of my stuff is paid for,” he said. “And it missed my utility trailer, so I’m going to an auction this week.”
He supplements his retirement income by buying everything from hardware to collectibles and then reselling it at flea markets and antique shows.
He’s been staying with another friend in Billings while he deals with the insurance companies and buys clothing, but he’s also going back and forth to his property.
“I should have built my underground house two years ago,” he said. He had already stockpiled some of the materials for his house and thought that some of it could be salvaged.
“I have some insurance, but I don’t know what I’ll get,” he said. “But things are falling’ into place. I plan to move back to Roundup and start over.”
As for his loss, he said, “There were a few things I would have liked, but it ain’t no big thing. Things aren’t that important. You know, to begin with, we’re all on these squirrel cage wheels: creeping, walking, running, going for good, better, more. Some of us lucky ones fall off the wheel and figure it out. You don’t have to climb back on.”
As for how he’s getting through this, “The yellow brick road is slowly becoming visible. Every once in a while, somebody comes along with a little broom and cleans off a few more bricks. I just have to keep plodding along. But I’m headed in the right direction. The next guy with the broom’ll show up.
“And don’t store your silver coins in aluminum beer keg,” he said with a half smile, looking down at the partly fused contents of a battered old enamelware bowl. “The aluminum didn’t hold up too good.”