Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Remembering the Fires of 2000

The forest fires of 2000 had a huge impact in the Bitterroot Valley, burning over 350,000 acres and destroying 70 homes and 169 other structures in the valley. This now famous picture was taken by fire behavior analyst John McColgan just north of Sula on August 6, 2000.

McColgan was traveling with the deputy incident commander for the Sula fires when he crossed a bridge over the East Fork of the Bitterroot River. "We just saw the elk, and I stopped and said, 'I'm taking 15 seconds here.'"

According to an article that ran in the Missoulian in late 2000:

“McColgan said the photo does not fully convey the extreme weather conditions that day. ‘It was a fairly violent situation out there,’ he said. ‘It looks fairly serene, but the wind was really whipping.’

“Several forest fires converged near Sula into a firestorm that overran 100,000 acres and destroyed 10 homes. Temperatures in the flame front were estimated at more than 800ºF. Nevertheless, McColgan said, the wildlife appeared to be taking the crisis in stride, gathering near the East Fork of the Bitterroot River where it crosses under US Highway 93.

"‘They know where to go, where their safe zones are,’ McColgan said. ‘A lot of wildlife did get driven down there to the river. There were some bighorn sheep there. A small deer was standing right underneath me, under the bridge.’ McColgan snapped the photo with a Kodak DC280 digital camera. Since he was working as a Forest Service firefighter, the shot is public property and cannot be sold or used for commercial purposes.

I wanted to see what the site looks like today. Armed with the original photo, and knowing only that it was taken from a bridge north of Sula, I was prepared to search every bridge between Sula and Darby until I found the right view. On my way out I stopped by the Sula Country Store, and I happened to ask the nice lady running the store if she knew which bridge the famous photo had been taken from. "The first bridge past the Rocky Knob," she said. "Look to your left."

This is the view from the bridge on October 6, 2009.

McColgan's picture turned into a bit of an urban legend. He downloaded his picture to an office computer, and a coworker saw it and e-mailed it to a friend. Then the picture spread like a virus, and people began claiming it was taken in nearly every fire in the west, including the Yellowstone fires of 1988. Some people claimed it was a fake. A reporter for the Missoulian traced McColgan all the way to his home state of Alaska and settled the matter. More recently, has added its conclusion that the picture and the story are authentic.

The full story of McColgan's photo, including downloadable copies in two sizes, is here. 

In December 2000, the Bitterroot National Forest published its report on the Bitterroot Fires of 2000.


  1. Cool post, Cliff.

  2. Amazing before and after pictures .... wow, Mother Nature .........