MAMMOTH – When Mammoth resident Bill Beam first saw smoke rising over the Tobacco Root Mountains on the afternoon of Sunday June 24, the day the Pony Fire ignited, he knew there was going to be trouble. Beam and his wife Darlene had left home that Friday to spend the weekend in Dillon, and they could see the smoke from the local trap-shooting club there.
“It was very unsettling,” Beam said of his initial reaction to the wildfire. “We could see the smoke boil up over the mountains, and we knew that it had to be very close to home.”
The couple decided to wait until Monday to return to their home up the South Boulder River, partly to see what would happen and partly because the high winds made for a long trip home hauling their fifth-wheel trailer. Because Mammoth is located in a box canyon surrounded by rugged mountains, Beam feared he might be too late as the fire could have easily ripped through the canyon already.
“Knowing the canyon here, you know, it could have been totally engulfed,” he said. “So we thought ‘We’re gonna take our chances and leave here first thing in the morning.’”
The Pony Fire burned for two weeks and encompassed nearly 5,200 acres. The first days of the blaze, it was pushed by a combination of high winds and unseasonably hot and dry conditions. The fire ultimately burned two residences and five outbuildings. The evacuation of the South Boulder River area and Mammoth lasted until July 9.
But on day two of the Pony Fire, the Beams weren’t sure what they’d find when they turned off the highway up the South Boulder River Road. The situation was dire. An apocalyptic haze of smoke blanketed the entire area, and a mandatory evacuation order had been issued by local authorities. After a highway patrolman allowed him to pass through a roadblock he continued up the canyon toward Mammoth, but the clock was running.
“It was very ugly. The valley was basically full of smoke, and you didn’t have any doubt where it was coming from,” Beam said. “When we came up here, you could look from my house up on the mountain and see the fire raging.”
Beam arrived at his house to find a sheriff’s deputy in the driveway. They were given an hour to gather what personal belongings they could and get back down the valley. It was a tense situation, but Beam laughs as he looks back on it now.
“He gave us as much time as he could, but he was mighty nervous,” he said of the deputy. “He was tapping his foot by the time we actually got in the pickup and headed down the road, and he was hot on our heels.”
“It’s very stressful,” Beam reflected. “More than you even realize at the time.”
For the next two weeks Beam and his wife stayed with a relative in Pony. While it was a minor inconvenience, he said, they were lucky compared to the other evacuated residents who where force to stay in nearby hotels. Without access to the Internet, it was a nerve-racking period of time but Beam was able to stay tuned in to what was happening through daily conference call with fire information officers and other area residents.
“Of course, you know, you’re very concerned. But you’re there and there’s nothing you can do so you kind of leave it in the hands of the professionals and hope that they’re on top of it.”
Beam credits the hundreds of firefighters who battled the blaze and worked tirelessly to protect structures in the small community of Mammoth. Without them, there would have been nothing left.
“Everything here was pretty much at the mercy of the firefighters,” he said. “They handled it most professionally. I certainly feel indebted to them.”
“They were like military precision, I feel. They just went in and did the job they had to do,” Beam continued. “It’s a matter of extreme training.”
When he was finally allowed to return home, once the fire had been declared contained, the sense of relief to see his home still standing unharmed was overwhelming.
“We could actually see from the timber how close down it had burned,” Beam said, adding that a heavy layer of smoke still filled the canyon. “And you could see a certain amount of flames, very small, little spot fires.”
“It would be horrible to lose everything, but then again it’s just stuff,” Beam continued. “As long as we have our family and everybody out of danger, and our neighbors and everyone are out of danger, it is just stuff.”
“It could have been disastrous and I feel we’re very fortunate,” he said. “It was just good to be home.”