Fire and Hope: Bridger Foothills Fire 2020

I was born lucky: from wealth, not generations of it but rather the sort built from your parents’ hard work, my dad rising as a doctor from Goodland, Kansas, and my mother, a Billings Spanish teacher whose family started a hardware store in Portland, Maine. Lucky with great family above all else... parents’ who loved me and helped their sons where they could, as they could, and another family in Chile where as a foreign exchange student from Billings Senior High, I landed with a family every bit as special. And health, I’ve always had that. Ditto for friends. The same is true for my wife, her situation and her family. There I got that out, not that it’s something I’ve ever hidden.

But these last few years, we have not been lucky. We’ve seen our house in Bridger Canyon destroyed three times in three years: twice from ice dam events, once so badly that it forced us to strip our home to the studs and now to this damn fire where we’ve lost everything almost exactly a year after finally moving back in.

To top that all off, there’s coronavirus and its impacts. Sweetwater Travel, the fly fishing company built with my two brothers and a team of wonderful friends, has been crushed, down almost 100% for 2020... and recently hit with a tax bill—the result of changes to tax policy two years ago that retroactively taxed us on overseas proceeds we’ve never seen, cash we never made— that still has our heads spinning. Now, many of those great people and friends are laid off, and my brothers and I have all been on unemployment at some point during this crisis—something I’ve never imagined. Say what you will, but we had no choice. We’ve fallen that far.

Finally, and most importantly, this concern of sending our girls (and teachers and everyone else) to school in a time when there is zero testing and when wearing a mask is somehow seen as unpatriotic, as if patriotism could possibly be defined by the right to infect your neighbors, their families or loved ones with this terrible virus.

In the face of all that we’ve endured, I now ask myself, could my family endure another loss or sickness from this virus? As much as our two girls want to go to school and be with their friends, at what point might we break as a family, however lucky and however thick our bark?

I had five minutes to pack fifty-one years, and I have always been a terrible packer. Add an approaching wall of flames and I was useless. One pair of socks, the underwear on my butt and my saltwater fly reels. My daughter Sole was a rockstar. She distilled her life at once to the things that really mattered... a shot of sisters in Florida, two fossilized whale teeth found on a beach in the Haida Gwaii in British Columbia and a perfectly preserved ammonite she found in the middle of Fort Peck. And she remembered underwear. In my next fire, I’m going to be more like Sole.

Thankfully though, after a lot of reflection, I’ve determined my wife and I can’t blame ourselves, and nor can any of you impacted by this fire, for what we packed or what we did not. We did our best, and wildfire tends to sort out your priorities really quickly. By that I mean in an instant—well before it registers in your brain days later— you somehow instinctively realize that the things you need from your home are exactly the things you can’t carry... your pets, your health, your memories and the people you love.

It’s the live things left behind to bear witness and be destroyed by fire that will haunt me. That white phase black bear I’ve known since it was a cub who knew me by scent, the grouse that occasionally fed my family and that scared me to death all year long in penance for eating their friends, the magnificent Douglas firs and Spruce trees I’ve sat beneath for years and taken it all in.

I’ve never been a trail guy, my wife hates that. “Bushwhacking husband hikes” I imagine is how she’d describe my forays to her running friends. For me though, it’s visiting friends— a giant tree here or a rock band with a view there— and exploring parts unknown. And it’s that loss of living country on our, the public’s, land that must also be appreciated. It wasn’t just Bridger Canyon residents that suffered a loss; it was everyone’s loss. This land was your land impacted too. So let me sing your losses ... each and every last one of you who loves that canyon just as much as we do.

But let’s all stop crying, myself included, if I can find the tap, and dig deep as a community and use this catastrophe to make the wild lands and trails in the canyon more iconic than ever. Let us recognize it’s recreational and emotional value to our community and turn the charred hills into such a special place that it will set the bar for green space conservation nationally. Make it a place we flee to, not from.

The truth is I’ve never seen such kindness. It’s reminded me that even the angriest Americans of either stripe are lovely people that care about their neighbors. I must remember that beyond the trauma.

I’ll return to walk the country I’m so touched by soon. Initially, I suppose, it will feel like a funeral of majestic places, trees and critters, and then I trust it will be the small celebrations of rebirth that will make me smile again. The burst of a grouse that takes my breath away, somehow hiding in a field of ash, the regrowth of trees, grass and flowers or a chipmunk that somehow survived the unpredictability of wildfire. Because that’s the way it is with fire and nature, more so with each passing day as we neglect climate change. The rain came just in time for some people and animals, and a day too late for others.

From this fire, we must remember as Americans that patriotism isn’t the right to do whatever you damn well please no matter its impact to others; rather it’s being a good person, being tolerant of one another and taking care of each other when we need it, preserving the wild places that make this country unique and taking care of future generations, not just ours.

This fire has made me realize that none of us are beyond that greatness even in all this 2020 ugliness. We’ve still got that, and that my friends, is the spirit of our country and the stuff of rebounds. To hell with media, both sides. Turn that crap off. They’re selling tickets to America’s carnage.

Yes, I’m an environmentalist above all else; I never should have mentioned the chipmunk... but that doesn’t paint me a nut any more than it might paint you one wherever your beliefs might lie. The important thing is not the division in this country, it is that we can still meet as friends in the middle somewhere and find common good for our communities and our country. Because as we meet in the middle, we come together, not apart.

Each and every one of us affected by fire will help and heal in their own way. As for me, I will hike into the wreckage and the ash alone with my dog, and mourn for my friends. And then, I will let the creeks that still flow, the giant, thick-barked Doug firs that did survive, heal my soul and let hope spring forth from knowing that the spirit of Bozeman and Montana will always rise above politics in the face of crisis.

Now, if only we could do that across the country and without fire...  

Jeff Vermillion lives in Bridger Canyon with his two daughters Ella and Sole and wife Catherine. When not in the woods or on the river, he is best contacted by email at