Life on the frontier is now life on the edge

My days start, as often as not, with a call from Aunt Floss. She lives on Boston's Beacon Hill and avidly follows the news. My home state of Montana has, of course, caught fire - in the parched forests and grasses and the worldwide media. Gov. Marc Racicot has declared it a disaster area.

Aunt Floss sees the satellite maps depicting, in garish yellow, where dozens of wildfires burn as hot as 2,500 degrees F. They have scorched about 600,000 acres of Big Sky Country, blanketing the Western half of the nation with smoke. Floss knows I live in Missoula, just north, south, east, or west of blazes sparked by lightning and fanned by wind.

In short, she worries about me.

"Are you still alive out there?" she asks in her broad Boston accent. "I've read about Darby. Don't you live near Darby?" She pronounces it "Dahbee," though, and I have to smile.

My husband, Steve, and I actually live about 60 miles north of Darby - a town in the Bitterroot Valley surrounded by the biggest inferno in the nation. Other blazes burn far closer to us.

We're fine, I reassure her. But "fine" is a relative term and can change with a single flash of dry lightning.

Over our house hum fire-spotter planes, slurry bombers, and a slew of helicopters, some hauling huge buckets of water. They serve as a constant reminder that we live on the fringe of fire.

Our conflagrations confirm, I think, what Aunt Floss has always suspected: that Montana is a barbarous no-man's land where anything will happen just because it can.

Normally, I tell her, this raw, untamable land is heaven. Our lives are simple, only as fast-paced as we make them. We don't revere wealth and the luxuries it can buy. And we hold our scenery, not ourselves, in awe.

But for several weeks now, our heaven's been turned upside down. Smoke hangs in the air like mist. Our pollution is the worst in two decades. Local health officials urge us to stay inside.

Normally outdoorsy, I live almost entirely indoors now. I keep the windows shut against the foul air, trapping the stifling heat in our house.

My life is on hold, tense and distracted as I am by the disasters swirling around me. I worry about people I know, friends who must fight to save the homes they've built by hand, the homes they've waited half a lifetime to own. I worry about landmarks with special meaning to me that are in the line of fire.

Sometimes the business of living forces me outdoors. Driving through downtown Missoula, I notice a woman sporting a device that looks like a cross between a gas mask and scuba gear. Tuning in my radio, I catch pitchmen hawking sturdy boots for firefighters and reminding people whose houses have gone up in smoke to get in touch with their insurance companies sooner rather than later. They sound remarkably cheerful.

At the local copy shop the other day, I visited with a woman whose father had just evacuated his home 30 miles east of here, taking only his dog, his rifles, and some old family photos. "Really," she said, "memories are all you can take with you." Well, those and your guns. This is, after all, Montana.

As we chatted, midnight seemed to fall. It was only 5 p.m., but the sky turned menacingly dark, as if the sun were in total eclipse. Rain, precious and seemingly impossible, began falling in torrents.

A bearded young firefighter in a baseball cap and heavy work boots watched the downpour, then said, "Kinda yay, kinda darn. We need the work."

He needn't have worried. A passing rainstorm, it turns out, doesn't put much of a dent in a firestorm.

At a time like this - with firefighters from 48 states, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand battling our blazes - strangers become friends, friends and families draw closer, and the wide world feels like a small community. Aunt Floss seems to live just up the road.

My days end, invariably, with a visit to a special family member: my horse. I board him at a ranch on the outskirts of town, at the base of a densely treed slope.

No matter how many times I make Steve repeat all the reasons my gelding will be safe, I don't totally believe him. I've taken to driving only our gas-guzzling pickup, ever ready to hitch it to my trailer and haul my horse away from danger.

Each night, as I leave the barn, the sun sinks blood-red-orange over the mountains. The moon rises deep apricot, the fires roaring below reflected in its quizzical face. Reluctantly, I roll up my windows, wondering what tomorrow will bring and waiting to exhale.

Carol Susan Woodruff

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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