DARBY, Mont. -- Montana's summer of fire is winding down, but it will be a long time until Charlotte Zikan can resume life as she knew it before flames reduced the house where she lived for 25 years to charred rubble.
Foresters have told Zikan it will be a year and a half before she'll know whether the hillside behind the rubble is stable enough for her to rebuild.
"It's a waiting game," Zikan, 62, said this week as she picked through the blackened bed frames, pieces of pottery, and nails among the debris of her house in southwestern Montana's Bitterroot Valley. Now, she is staying with friends.
As firefighters move out of Montana and on to other wildfire-ravaged Western states, there is no shipping out and no immediate forecast of normalcy for Zikan and hundreds of others whose lives were thrown into disarray.
The American Red Cross says recovering from the fire catastrophe will be different from the aftermath of other natural disasters, because people are having to keep their lives on hold longer.
"A tornado comes and a tornado goes," said Bob Howard, Red Cross spokesman in Missoula. "People know the extent of the damage and what they have to deal with."
There are many unknowns in the aftermath of the Montana wildfires, which began in July and had blackened 935,700 acres as of Friday. Hit hardest was the Bitterroot area, where 64 homes were destroyed.
Blazes that ripped through trees and other protective cover on slopes, may have left unstable land behind. The health effects of prolonged exposure to smoke for residents with respiratory problems will not be known for months. And with several weeks remaining in the fire season, there is a risk new blazes will erupt or the ongoing fires will flare up.
"It's been hard on a lot of people, physically and emotionally," said Gretchen Serwacki, who was evacuated for a full month.
Serwacki and her husband were allowed to return home when the last of the Bitterroot evacuation orders ended on Tuesday. But their homecoming was delayed when they learned their place had septic-tank problems, apparently caused by the removal of trees.
"We think we're blessed that we still have our house," said Serwacki, who has been living in a campground motorhome.
Foresters, soil scientists, fire experts and others are assessing the intensity of the fires from one place to another. Measures to rehabilitate the land will vary with severity of the burning, said Jack Kendley, a Forest Service spokesman.
The study of the fires' intensity will provide information for managers of public lands and for private landowners like Zikan.
Many of Zikan's pine trees died in the fire, as did her small fruit orchard. Some blackened apples still hang on branches and others are scattered about the ground, like charcoal briquettes dumped from a barbecue.
The backyard fruit is replaceable, but so many other things are not: Zikan's baby book, her late father's billfold. "I don't think I have any record of my mother's handwriting," she said. "You don't think about things like that."
When the fire hit her house on Aug. 6, Zikan was at a wedding. She had removed two carloads of belongings, after being told the house was in harm's way, yet she still thought it would still be intact when she came back.
"What fireplace is not left standing?" she said Wednesday as she paused amid the rubble, where only the living room fireplace remained.
Nevertheless, Zikan is optimistic about her prospects of picking up the pieces.
"Two years from now, this will be nice and green."
On the Net:
Montana fire recovery information: http://newslinks.state.mt.us/recovery.shtml
Federal Emergency Management Agency: http://www.fema.gov/
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