On the way we ventured into Yellowstone Park. There was evidence that a large fire burned right to the edge of Yellowstone Lodge and hot springs field that was home to Old Faithful. Folks there described how they fought the flames and kept their structures wetted down and despite all their efforts it still seemed only good fortune spared them. The fire had occurred two years previous and undergrowth was only beginning to show green with the approach of summer. All along our journey to Missoula we witnessed huge tracts of forest punctuated sparsely with blackened bare spots.
We arrived in Missoula late afternoon and after finding Natalie’s school checked into a motel. Natalie laid done for a nap while I sat at the door looking at brewing thunderstorms. It began with a sudden pelting of the largest hail I ever saw. Off in the distance sparks of lightening leaped to the ground. One large strike grabbed my attention. It was not a quick burst but a lasting discharge of electrical energy to the earth. It lasted long enough for me to shout to Natalie, “Come here, you got to see this.” It ended before she got to the door, but in my opinion set a personal record for lightening strike duration. Before night fell the storm abated and it turned to a peaceful evening.
The morning was bright, clear, and perfect weather for a hike. The southern boundary of University of Montana campus abuts a sizeable mountain with a large letter “M” marked out on its northern slope. There are hiking trails ascending this peak and we decided to go on a trek. We began heading south to where a trail snaked up the eastern slope. Our walk began in the woods and as it climbed offered brief glimpses of our destination--the peak. At one spot I noticed a bit of smoke coming off the mountain. We surmised that we were witnessing the after effects of a strike from the previous night. It was not a large blaze and in fact we could see not flames. But as we continued the smoking area would come and go from view. Finally, we pulled near enough to determine that whatever was smoking was several feet below our path. Still we saw no flames. Eventually we stood at a spot about a hundred feet above the source of smoke. It was an easy scramble down to investigate its source. When we go there, we saw a stump that had been cleaved into two distinct sections, no doubt the effect of a strike. Smoke was pouring from the ground from what were obviously the burning roots. Since all the combustibles were underground, the flames went unnoticed. But apparently enough oxygen could seep through the cracked ground d to feed the fire. We climbed back to our trail and continued our upward hike.
Not to much farther along we met three youngsters headed down the trail. They were shouldering shovels, picks and a water tank fire extinguisher. They told us they were college students at work for the US Forest Service. They had been dropped on the peak so they could carry their load down hill to extinguish the fire we had passed. Fighting fires and being dropped off above them was the bulk of their summer jobs. They expressed gratitude for the helicopters that lifted them to the top. If they had to carry all their gear up the mountain, the fire they came to fight would have likely went out or escaped.