Madeline Swanberg

The summer before I turned seventeen was the worst fire season in Montana history. The Rice Ridge fire outside of Seeley Lake grew 60,000 acres in a single day, filling the beautiful Blackfoot Valley, where I had lived my entire life, with smoke and threatening evacuation for my family and many of our friends and neighbors.

We had it much better than most of the people living in the Seeley-Swan Valleys, who breathed air filled with the particulates of their burning forests for most of the dry summer and well into the fall, and continue to feel the effects on their respiratory systems. I’d never felt so terrified, so close to losing such an enormous part of myself, and I never thought I would again.

Now I’m in Portland for college, and the entire West Coast faces fires of similar size and unpredictability, while whacky weather events in other parts of the country and world endanger and hurt communities just as they did mine.

This time, the fear I feel isn’t just worrying about how we’ll make it through the next few weeks until the rains come. It’s worrying about what the rest of the fire seasons of my lifetime will look like. When I think about how I want to spend the next six decades or so of my life, it’s not inside with an air filter while an orange haze of smoke covers everything like a blanket.

It’s not skiing in the mountains for a shorter and shorter time each year as the snowpack slowly shrinks, and it’s not watching the streams and rivers I’ve fished with my dad become slow and warm and empty of beautiful, healthy trout. But as I watch politicians continue to brush over the underlying cause of megafires and other climate catastrophes, that possibility seems to become more and more likely.

We’re past the point where merely preventing the climate change that is a main cause of these catastrophes is an option. Fixing an issue this huge, scary and complex will require public officials who are just as scared, angry, determined and organized as we are—so let’s make sure this and every election cycle that those are the people we put into office using our votes and our voices.

Wren Cilimburg

I was a freshman at college in southern California when COVID hit. I was devastated to get sent home, but it did give me more time to think and observe. And what I saw was a shock to my private-liberal-arts-campus-bubble. I saw the pandemic become so much worse than it could have been.

I saw my mom working way too hard at her job as director of a climate nonprofit while we continue to pour out fossil fuels at alarming rates. This fall I returned to California for school, and every day I see smoke from one of the many fires that is torching the West Coast.

The urgency of this moment is overwhelming: fires, climate change, police brutality, a global pandemic—it’s terrifying. But let’s use this fear to create action. Never has there been more to vote for. Although I am in California right now, I voted in Montana: for my Montana mountains, my community, my family.

I cannot create change alone. But together we can, and it starts with voting for candidates that believe in us, that care about us. You can still register to vote and hand-deliver your ballot. Make sure everyone you know does the same. If you still need to register to vote, aren't sure how to return your ballot, or have any other questions, is a fantastic resource.

Madeline Swanberg is a sophomore at Lewis and Clark College and, when not at college, lives in Ovando. Wren Cilimburg is a sophomore at Claremont McKenna College and, when not at college, lives in Missoula. They first met when Wren was 2 weeks old and Madeline was 1 day old; both are currently interns with Forward Montana.

This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – every week by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource.

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