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There’s a blanket of charred trees stretching from the ridge of the Bridger Mountains to Highway 84, tapering off near Stone Creek.

On the patchwork of black and yellow fields spread across the Bangtails, houses spared by the Bridger Foothills fire stand beside piles of rubble. A dead cow lay sprawled near the road.

“It’s not clean black,” said Mariah Leuschen-Lonergan, a spokesperson for the Custer Gallatin National Forest. “There are places that burned and places that didn’t burn.”

To contain a fire, crews must feel around its edge with their hands to detect hotspots. Since the Bridger Foothills fire moved quickly and erratically through the canyon, that process has taken firefighters longer than normal.

“There’s a lot more terrain to cover,” Leuschen-Lonergan said. “We have a lot more resources, and we’re putting in a lot of work.”

As of Saturday morning, the fire was 72% contained. Officials believe a lightning strike smoldered in a tree and eventually sparked the fire that has grown to cover 8,224 acres. Approximately 370 people were working on the fire.

Anne Marie Quinn is lucky her house wasn’t among the 28 that burned. When the Bridger Foothills fire descended Bridger Canyon on Sept. 5, it incinerated everything up to her doorstep.

“Everywhere I look out the window, everything is black,” Quinn said recently. “We had only two minutes to evacuate.”

Quinn was like others who fled the Bridgers and Bangtails that Saturday. While she watched the trees around her house crown with flames, she snatched her paintings from the walls.

“It’s one of those things you always worry about when you live in a place like this, but can’t imagine how frightening it is,” she said. All Quinn knew was that she and the people around her were on their own, and it was just a matter of luck whether their houses would burn to the ground.

The Bridger Foothills fire started Friday afternoon near the “M” trail. Firefighters, police officers and search and rescue teams pulled together to evacuate trails, redirect traffic and contain the fire. Crews appeared to have subdued it by Saturday morning.

A sudden wind shift, high temperatures and low humidity was all it took. At around 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, the fire blew up. An enormous plume of smoke billowed above the Bridgers. The blaze forced evacuations throughout Bridger Canyon and along Jackson Creek Road and Kelly Canyon.

“It’s pretty amazing we didn’t lose anyone,” Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin said at a public meeting the next day.

The fire continued to spread that Sunday, but a snow storm Monday helped to slow it. By Wednesday, an inferno had been reduced to a few wisps of smoke.

Yet the fight is far from over. “Monday’s rain event did not put the fire out,” Leuschen-Lonergan said. “There’s a lot more terrain to cover.”

Mitch Dana, a firefighter working with a structure protection division of the Forest Service, said that a number of factors go into a decision to save a structure. The amount of vegetation surrounding a structure, its distance to the fire and the speed at which the fire travels all dictate whether firefighters can defend it.

If firefighters had had more time and resources, they could have gone in and done more assessments Saturday, he said. “If you’re going to live in the woods, you need to take it upon yourself to do defensible spacing.”

Quinn thinks her house could have been spared because it’s surrounded by gravel, or because her neighbor advised her to return early Sunday morning.

“He stayed, and the fire swept over him,” Quinn said.

Paul Birkeland, Quinn’s neighbor, called Quinn and her husband early Sunday morning after they’d evacuated. Their house was still standing, but they needed to get up there quickly, he’d said.

Quinn and her husband raced back to the house with a camper filled with water. They grabbed a fire extinguisher, a pick axe and a shovel, and started putting out fires. They tried to save other houses, too.

As they worked, smoke alarms went off and embers burned everywhere, Quinn said. She’d quickly figured out which houses had made it and which houses were gone.

Birkeland and his cats survived Saturday night. Birkeland’s house did too. His grill, garden tools and one of his sheds did not.

“I just feel lucky to have my house standing,” he said. “I didn’t have any trouble taking care of it myself.”

Birkeland said he watched the fire creep down from the Bridgers from his home. When he felt heat from the wind, he realized it would be coming down the hill toward him.

At one point, a fire marshal let Birkeland know he would have to take full responsibility for choosing to stay.

Birkeland packed up his cats and parked his car at the Bridger Canyon fire station. He ran back to his home and began shoveling hotspots and covering them with dirt. The flames washed around his house at around 5 p.m.

“I was out of my mind running on adrenaline,” he said. I “stuck it out as best I could.”

Birkeland is an avid gardener and the former executive manager of catering services for Montana State University. He’s lived in Bozeman for 45 years and retired from his job in July.

“This is my investment. This is what I had,” he said. “I just had to get this done. There was no recourse.”

Birkeland said the fire never looked like a wall of flames. It was more like a grass fire that came right up to his fence. “It was quite austere to be in this charred landscape,” he said.

When he wasn’t defending his property, Birkeland was calling up his neighbors to let them know how their houses were faring. “You try to be a good neighbor,” he said.

Now, Birkeland is trying to look on the bright side. “Grass is going to regenerate new pastures for the elk,” he said.

For Dana Williams, an adjunct professor at Gallatin College and Quinn’s closest neighbor, looking on the bright side has been hard, but she’s trying. Her house burned down Saturday.

“Now I’m practicing non-attachment, because that’s what you have to do,” she said. “Life goes on.”

Williams watched the fire progress above the “M” while paddle-boarding at Bozeman Beach Friday afternoon. She was a little concerned but thought it would be OK.

That night, she piled her living room floor with personal items, just in case. She left her house Saturday at noon. Everything was fine.

“I thought it was taken care of,” she said. “We hiked Peets Hill and had lunch.”

From Peets Hill, Williams saw the plume traveling up the canyon. She jumped in a friend’s car and drove through Jackson Creek. By the time she got home, her house was close to burning down.

“It happened so fast,” she said. “In the panic of the moment, I took half as much as I would have.”

Williams managed to grab some things she knew she’d be heartbroken to lose. She wasn’t able to grab a little table her grandfather made, or the Persian rugs one of her father’s students had brought from Iran.

She also wasn’t able to grab her two goldfish, Fred and Ginger.

“They were 8 years old,” she said.

“People say you didn’t think about it, but I didn’t have time,” she said. “It’s chaotic, and you’re not thinking clearly.”

Though Williams felt certain her house was lost Saturday night, she didn’t know for sure until Sunday morning when a neighbor sent her a photograph. She returned Wednesday to dig through the rubble for anything of value. All she could find were the workings of a clock.

“Probably the biggest lesson I would impart is to make a list before it’s an emergency,” she said.

Williams has been touched by the generosity and support from her friends, family and people in Bozeman.

“People have come out of the woodwork to offer me anything they can,” she said. “It’s remarkable how much this community comes together to help people.”

Williams thanked businesses that offered free food and coffee and other businesses that offered discounts to people affected by the fire. She said people at Gallatin College offered her clothes, flowers and personal care items.

“I’ve got at least 500 messages since Saturday from friends asking what they can do,” she said.

As a professor who teaches environmental science, Williams wondered whether the fire could teach people to manage forests proactively instead of waiting for an emergency.

“We fell way short,” she said. “I don’t blame anybody in particular.”

Kevin Larson, emergency management coordinator for Gallatin County, helped to organize a “Relief and Support” day Wednesday at the county fairgrounds. He wanted victims of the fire to have one place to find answers.

People Wednesday walked rifled through clothes and strolled past booths set up in the Haynes Pavilion. Support dogs wagged their tails. A number of nonprofits, including the Salvation Army, the Red Cross, HRDC, the Western Montana Mental Health Center, United Way, the Hope Center and Love, Inc., all had booths.

“There’s a lot of emotion and appreciation,” Larson said. “It’s very humbling, and I’m pretty proud of my community.”

Larson guessed approximately 25 people showed up at the fairgrounds Wednesday, but several might not have been able to attend. Families had just been allowed to return to Bridger Canyon. He said officials were hoping to plan another relief and support day, and he encouraged those impacted by the fire to call the 211 help center for resources.

“It’s very difficult for people to ask for assistance,” said Shellie Creveling, Red Cross disaster program manager. “We assure them we’re here to help.”

Creveling said it struck her Wednesday when a family of six approached her booth. She offered blankets, but one family member told her to save them for someone who needed them more.

“Well, your house burned down,” Creveling said. “This is what we’re here for.”

The Red Cross is providing those who have lost their homes with motel rooms and three meals a day, said Ernie Lytle, a volunteer. He encouraged families to call 1-800-272-6668 to request services.

“The people here have been so great. It’s a testament to the community,” said Jason Mendelsohn, a program ambassador for the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance, a national nonprofit.

Mendelsohn found out his home up Bridger Canyon was gone after he watched its security cameras shut off one by one. He and his family had fled to his sister’s in-laws' house Saturday afternoon after the fire began to close in.

“There was nothing I could do,” Mendelsohn said. “I just felt extreme sadness.”

Mendelsohn wasn’t able to save many precious items, including his daughter’s jewelry, gifted from her grandfather. His daughter, who is going into her sophomore year of college, has only the clothes she was wearing.

“It’s heartbreaking when you make memories to watch everything disappear,” he said. “If tomorrow, God forbid, a fire comes to your home, know what to take.”

A survivor of throat cancer, Mendelsohn remembers sending his kids goodbye videos at 44 years old. He said his family is resilient, and they’re already thinking about rebuilding.

“I think when you’ve been through cancer, you understand how precious life is,” he said. “I won’t focus on the loss.”

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Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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