Smoke and Mountains
Jacob reports from the North American Epic bike tour:
The sky is thick and grey in all directions, High above, the sun is a dull orange glow. Air is warm and dusty. ‘This is what it was like in parts of China on the Silk Route’, Emily and Yanez tell me of this strange phenomenon. It certainly feels like we are in the middle of a sprawling city polluted by exhaust fumes and power stations. It reminds me of Delhi, or London on a hot summer’s day. However, we are not in the midst of a large city, we are in the modest town of Kalispell, Montana, the gateway to the pristine and beautiful Glacier National Park. The greyness in the sky is not from pollution, it is from the immense raging forest fires in Washington state, and Idaho to the west. The volume of smoke suggests a huge inferno just beyond the horizon, the tell tale sign of a huge natural disaster.
As the sky darkens ominously, life goes on as normal below. Cars travel up and down Kalispell’s Main Street, whilst pedestrians dip in and out of shops and cafés. The smell of smoke is everywhere, and fine ash floats almost imperceptibly through the air. Even for those who live here, and are familiar with forest fires, this is the worst for a long time. A local working in a retail store tells me this is the worst it has been since 2004. For those of us unacquainted with forest fires, the presence of so much smoke is alarming. On the horizon mountains and trees that would be a bold presence on the landscape, are barely visible through the haze. A quick internet search reveals the severity of the blaze. President Obama has declared a state of emergency, and firefighters are being flown in from Australia and New Zealand to help tackle the blaze. But still, no panic. At the Kalispell town fair, families enjoy rides and attractions, whilst the growing grey cloud looms above. The wind gusts suddenly, blowing ash and dust through the makeshift canopies and tents. There is a brief scene of panic. People rush for shelter, before the wind dies down and familiar sounds of the festival resume. It is an intriguing contrast of leisure, and disaster. A few hundred miles west, an inferno rages, but here life goes on as normal.
Fires are a way of life in many of the areas we have travelled through. A day riding on the Alaska Highway took us through a recently devastated forest, still smouldering from the blaze. It was a strange otherworldly landscape. The current blaze will bring reminder of the ‘Great fire of 1910’ which scorched about 3 million acres of land, and killed 87 people, mostly firefighters, in the same states of Washington, Idaho, and Montana. The disaster, the largest fire in U.S history, created awareness of both wilderness preservation and fire safety. Nowadays, fire stations and warning signs are seen frequently along the road in these heavily forested areas. Forest fires are evidently a big concern for the environment, and the safety of people in the surrounding areas.
Life on the tour has continued as normal, but with the lingering screen of smoke has become a familiar feature of riding in Montana. Local residents each have differing information regarding the severity of the blaze. Some say the fires are spreading, some say they are coming under control. Some say the smoke originates from Washington, some say from within Montana itself. Some say it is the worse they have ever seen, some say it’s not. The smoke is both a literal and metaphorical screen that hides the true extent of the danger from those closest to it. It is a situation in flux, and no one is certain of the extent or severity of the ever changing fires.