Fires near Seeley Lake taking a bite out of businesses

One of several aircraft working the Rice Ridge fire prepares to skim water off Seeley Lake on Wednesday before delivering its cargo to the nearby fire. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

SEELEY LAKE – With the lake closed and firefighting aircraft parading overhead, business owners here have buckled down for what some fear could be a long, slow season, one that could put a pinch on revenue needed to survive the winter.

On Wednesday, smoke from the Rice Ridge fire wafted just beyond town, filling the Seeley-Swan Valley with haze. The local campgrounds were closed, as were several businesses, and tourists were few in number.

The slowdown has business owners like Moose Jergesen concerned.

“They’re already canceling for recreation reservations,” said Jergesen, who purchased Rocky Mountain Adventure Gear less than 18 months ago. “Number one, it’s the smoke – they don’t want to breathe it – and two, we’re under a pre-evacuation warning, so you don’t know what can happen.”

Moose Jergensen inspects the recreational gear that isn’t renting due to the closure of Seeley Lake and other area attractions due to the Rice Ridge fire. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

In a fateful trifecta, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks on Tuesday closed the waters of Seeley Lake to make room for firefighting aircraft. Planes circled overhead all Wednesday, diving down from across the valley to skim water off the surface and deliver the payload to the nearby fire.

The buzz of activity and lack of tourists have left Jergensen’s equipment unused. Paddle boards line the outdoor wall waiting for a renter. The tents and water skis sit on display.

“We did have a couple reservations cancel last weekend because of the smoke and the non-use of campfires, but yesterday was the big hit,” said Jergesen. “We technically have 60 days to make our money for the year, but we’re sitting at 30. The fire has cut our season in half.”

Throughout the day, firefighting equipment and law enforcement personnel moved through town as a light wind gusted from the east, stoking concerns that the Rice Ridge fire could begin moving toward town.

The Missoula County Sheriff’s Office had already issued evacuation warnings to residents east of Highway 83, including those south of Rice Ridge and Cottonwood Lakes Road, extending south through the Double Arrow Ranch.

The evacuation zone represents a large swath of the community, and while many business owners are accustomed to western Montana’s fire season, having the Rice Ridge blaze so close to town, chasing off tourists, could test their bottom line.

It is, they note, the height of the tourist season.

Laurel Daniels, who has owned and operated the Ice Cream Palace for 27 years, works the booth on Wednesday with members of her family. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

“The fire has cut our season about in half, though we still have about six weeks to make money so we can make it through the winter,” said Laurel Daniels, who has owned and operated the Ice Cream Palace for 27 years. “We’ve been feeding quite a few fire crews, so that helps, but once the tourists leave and the locals leave, then we’ll really drop, and I’m afraid tomorrow may be the day it begins to hit us.”

While Seeley Lake typically buzzes with motor boats and jet skis, the waters sat strangely quiet on Wednesday, save the skimmer aircraft that swept in every 10 minutes. Many businesses were closed while smoke cast a paltry haze down main street.

But inside the Grizzly Claw, a handful of tourists who had yet to leave town made the best of the situation by shopping for jewelry or sipping lattes from Jitterbug Java Espresso.

Dee Baker, who has owned the Grizzly Claw for 21 years, nursed his business through the nearby Jocko Lakes fire in 2007, as well as the 2001 terror attacks and the recession. Still, he said, seeing the campgrounds empty and the lake closed doesn’t make it easier.

“It’s one of those external variables you have no control over,” said Baker. “We have over 100 Montana artists working here and we try to display their work as good as we can. We stay open from 6:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. and, beyond that, that’s all we can do.”

Baker, like many business owners, described Seeley Lake as an enduring town. And while its economic success may be closely tied to the weather and the summer season, they believe the community will survive the summer of 2017, just as it has done in past fire seasons.

Some are already making plans to cope with the setback.

“My theory is to sell some of the equipment, so we’ll see how that goes,” said Jergesen. “The other lakes are still open – Placid, Salmon, Holland and Lindbergh. But Seeley is the main part of it, and the big concern is the town itself.”

The Big Larch Campground on Seeley Lake is one of several areas closed to visitors. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)