Montana Public Radio

Families Reflect On The Aftermath Of Bozeman-Area Fire

Sep 10, 2020

Coming off Montana’s most active fire weekend of the summer, residents in Bridger Canyon are using the current break in the weather to reflect and regroup from the damage incurred, and avoided, from the Bridger Foothills Fire. MTPR’s Edward O’Brien caught up with two evacuated families.

Bozeman’s Bridger Canyon evacuees were given one hour earlier this week to check on their homes and animals. Aric Lapinsky will never forget what he saw.

"I was the first one on site to see the house. It was very heartbreaking to see all of our family memories, me growing up as a child up there, too. It was just all to the ground."

The Lapinsky homestead was just off Bridger Canyon Drive and was one of 28 homes claimed Saturday by the Bridger Foothills Fire.

"My grandparents actually had it built by family friends – the Harkins. They raised their kids there; my father and aunts and uncles. I was raised in that house for many years, and we started our family up there just five years ago as well," Lapinsky says.

The Gallatin County Sheriff’s Department warned residents Friday evening to be prepared to evacuate just in case the new Bridger Foothills Fire worsened. Aric and his wife took the advice and sent their two children to spend the night at their grandmother’s house in Livingston. The couple spent a long, mostly sleepless night watching over their Bozeman home. All was quiet until early Saturday afternoon:

"Seeing that smoke rolling over the top of the hill, I told my wife, ‘grab a bag. We may not be home tonight,” Lapinsky says.

The Lapinskys collected some clothes, their computer and as much of their kids’ stuff as they could fit into their small car. They hightailed it to Livingston, and would never see their family home again.

People evacuating from Bridger Canyon, Sept. 5, 2020. The Bridger Foothills Fire threatened homes and forced evacuations near the fire, which started near the 'M trail' just northeast of Bozeman, MT.
Credit inciweb

The Varrin family, a few miles west of the Lapinskys, also had a chaotic Saturday afternoon.

"We actually live at Bridger Bowl Ski Area. We have a cabin there," Michelle Varrin says.

Varrin remembers Saturday’s heat. Highs climbed to 95 degrees as the humidity was dropping and the wind was picking up.

That morning the family could only see wisps of the Bridger Foothills Fire, so they decided to go for a mountain bike ride. They returned home at about 2:30 in the afternoon.

"We laid down to take a nap, my husband and I in one room, my daughter in another. We turned fans on because it was so hot. We did not hear our neighbor pounding on our door telling us to evacuate. We all slept through it."

When Varrin woke up, she couldn’t see the mountains.

"The smoke came in so fast, and that was only in an hour. It’s remarkable how fast and how furious that fire was up our canyon."

The Varrins quickly learned they had 20 minutes to leave. The family grabbed what they could and hustled out to find new living arrangements. Turns out that’s easier said than done. Varrin says they couldn’t find one available room in Bozeman Saturday night.

"It’s already tricky in Bozeman, especially over any normal weekend – but it was Labor Day weekend. We were also the last to be evacuated. There’s a chance a lot of other people grabbed hotel rooms for the night.”

They eventually found an AirBnB in Big Sky.

The Varrins have fled fires amid a global pandemic both in Montana and California this summer.

"We were just repopulated in our house in the Santa Cruz Mountains a week ago. We were completely evacuated from that one. In that fire we had a hotspot that came within a quarter mile of our house. It was in imminent danger. Both houses, the cabin and that [California] house seem to be ok now, so we were extremely lucky, but it has been quite a few weeks for us."

Both the Varrin family and the Lapinskys say the Bozeman community’s generosity is overwhelming. Friends and strangers alike are pitching in to help evacuees with supplies and services whenever possible.

Aric Lapinsky says his two young kids are rolling with the punches as best they can, but adds his 5-year-old son just 'wants to go home.'

Wednesday was his very first day of school.

"I think he was really happy to go to school this morning. He’s been talking about it since he was three – going to school and making friends; just getting to do those little things to take his mind off of it and start moving forward. We keep telling him we’re going to get a better house and newer stuff."

That will take time.

Their next move? A family-wide meeting to discuss the future of the now-scorched property that belonged to the Lapinsky family for generations.

Three hundred firefighters are battling The Bridger Foothills Fire which has scorched over 7,100 acres. Monday’s cool, wet weather significantly reduced fire behavior and helped the Type-1 Incident Management team that’s in charge of the incident significantly limit further fire spread.

Temperatures are expected to gradually warm into the 80’s by the weekend and possibly the 90s by early next week.