One of the aspects of doing research for my novels that I really love is finding a story line that hasn’t occurred to me. That’s exactly what happened when I went to Montana last summer to research my Amish of Sky Country series. I intended to write three books, each about a different Amish friend whose life is changed by the terrible wildfires that damaged the tiny village of West Kootenai. As I did interviews and toured the countryside, I realized the impact on these Amish women was closely tied to the impact on their entire community.
My sense of the story grew even more after I interviewed Lincoln County Sheriff Rob Bowe, who coordinated his department’s efforts with other law enforcement and firefighting agencies during the fires. His county includes both West Kootenai and Libby, Montana. While the sheriff’s department is small in Lincoln County, Bowe said they had help from Border Patrol, ICE, Fish and Game, reserve deputies, and a variety of other agencies that made it possible to coordinate evacuations over such a large area. The U.S. Forest Service personnel led firefighting efforts.
At one point, five fires raged in Lincoln County simultaneously. Sheriff Bowe handled pre-evacuation notices, evacuations, and community meetings to brief residents on containment progress. Sheriff’s deputies also escorted residents into restricted areas when possible to retrieve belongings. Bowe also had to attend meetings to keep abreast of firefighting efforts so he could share that information with residents who were desperate to know if their homes had survived.
Until I talked to Sheriff Bowe, I hadn’t thought about the impact the fires had on law enforcement personnel. While going door-to-door making sure residents evacuated, Bowe and his deputies also made sure their own families were safe. Sheriff Bowe evacuated his family, including his parents. In small towns, everyone knows everyone, which makes the sense of responsibility even greater.
“These are good people,” he said, “and it was hard on them.”
He noted that no burglaries or looting were reported at any time during the evacuations. Nor were there any injuries or fatalities. “I don’t think we even lost any livestock.”
The sheriff’s department has its primary offices in Libby, home to a small Amish community as well as the one in West Kootenai. Sheriff Bowe said he considers some of them friends. “They’re hard working and good neighbors.”
By the time I finished with my visit to Libby and West Kootenai, I knew I wanted to write a bigger story. One woman’s story couldn’t do justice to what happened during these fires. This is the story of a community that banded together to weather a life-threatening crisis. Mountains of Grace is not only Mercy Yoder’s story of change and growth, but also Sheriff’s Deputy Tim Trudeau’s story, Englisher Juliette Knowles’ story, Smoke Jumper Spencer McDonald’s story, and Amish bachelor Caleb Hostetler’s story. These stories are inextricably intertwined and changed by the wildfires of 2017. The lessons the people of this tiny community learned are ones we also use. To learn more about the fires and how the community worked together to rebuild afterwards, check out this Youtube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tU2COb_Ktjs
Mountains of Grace debuts on August 6. It’s available now for pre-order.