Molly Shepherd watched that July night from her one-room cabin as lightning struck repeatedly in the Whitefish Range west of her property near Trail Creek.
“It was very dramatic,” she said. “I had never seen such concentrated lightning.”
Shepherd knew conditions were ripe in the North Fork for a wildfire but she decided to follow through with plans for a horseback trip in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
“I was not here when the fire made its big run down the Trail Creek drainage,” she said.
The U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service later estimated that the Wedge Canyon Fire started on July 18, 2003.
Records show that the wildfire destroyed seven cabins/houses and 29 outbuildings and ultimately burned more than 53,000 acres, including acreage within Glacier National Park.
The Wedge Canyon Fire came within about a quarter of a mile of Molly Shepherd’s one-room cabin, which occupies a small piece of Shepherd’s property. She had friends in the North Fork who lost their homes.
Shepherd, now 76 years old, said the 2003 fire was a watershed event for many people with properties in the remote, wild and achingly beautiful territory along the North Fork of the Flathead River — habitat residents share with grizzly and black bears, moose, elk, deer, lynx, wolves, mountain lions, wolverines and numerous species of birds.
“The Wedge Fire was a catalyst for the North Fork to get together for fire mitigation,” she said.
Shepherd had long dreamed of building a larger home on an especially buildable site of her 78 acres north of the Trail Creek Road. She had been working for years to thin the trees in the vicinity of her one-room cabin and to adopt other measures to reduce fuels that could feed a wildfire.
After the Wedge Canyon Fire, she decided to move forward with building a home that would be wildfire resistant. Shepherd retired the same year as the fire from her work as a lawyer in Missoula, where she had moved in 1975.
She worked with architect John Wells of MMW Architects in Missoula and builder Dennis Frey.
Construction of the 3,000-foot-plus-square-foot home occurred during 2005 and 2006.
Shepherd said Frey turned out to be the perfect fit for a project presenting such unique challenges. Her property is about 16 miles north of Polebridge and roughly six miles from the Canadian border.
“He is very resourceful and a great trouble-shooter,” Shepherd said of Frey.
The challenges began when excavation for a root cellar discovered springs. A French drain provided a remedy.
To promote wildfire resistance, the primary building materials included concrete block, corrugated metal siding and metal roofing. Screen mesh was installed to discourage infiltration of the eaves by smoldering wildfire embers.
The off-the-grid home relies on solar panels, batteries and a diesel generator for electricity, and on propane and wood for heat.
Smiling, Shepherd said she had the sense that a few of her North Fork neighbors – those wed to traditional log-home construction deemed appropriate for the landscape — were initially skeptical about whether the metal and block house would be compatible with a wilderness aesthetic.
She imagined that some worried it would be an “uber-contemporary monstrosity.” For a time, Shepherd felt grateful the house would not be visible from either the North Fork Road or the Trail Creek Road.
Yet she said the diverse North Fork community typically leans toward acceptance of differences.
“Instead of carrying their predilections and prejudices, they are willing to open their eyes and make fresh judgments,” Shepherd said.
She became an active participant in community discussions about how residents could work to make their homes and properties less vulnerable to wildfire. Shepherd is currently co-chair with Allen Chrisman of the North Fork Landowners Association’s Fire Mitigation Committee.
Chrisman retired in 2008 as a forester for the Forest Service.
The committee has helped draft a wildfire protection plan. It reports: “The North Fork community occupies a corridor at risk from severe wildlife. The corridor is approximately three miles wide and thirty-five miles long, extending from Big Creek to the Canadian Border along the North Fork of the Flathead River.”
The committee noted also that properties from Trail Creek to the Canadian Border are considered particularly at risk, partly because “the area has not burned since the fires of the early twentieth century.”
Shepherd and others moved forward with projects and educational efforts to help property owners in the North Fork learn about wildfire protection. She helped the community achieve a Firewise USA designation from the National Fire Protection Association. The Firewise USA program is co-sponsored by the Forest Service, the U.S. Department of the Interior and the National Association of State Foresters.
Chrisman expressed appreciation this week for Shepherd’s efforts.
“Molly is the original ‘Energizer Bunny’ when it comes to Firewise, fire and fuels mitigation and good forest management,” Chrisman said.
“With the construction of her fire-resistant house, Molly is the role model for construction in the North Fork,” he said.
Chrisman added that Shepherd has been a driving force for the annual Firewise Days held each summer and said she was also instrumental in getting the North Fork Community Wildfire Protection Plan completed.
“Molly has earned respect from not only people up and down the North Fork, but also those engaged at the regional level in efforts to integrate people into a wildland fire environment in a safe manner,” Chrisman said.
The exterior of Shepherd’s wildfire-resistant house, with its corrugated metal siding, steel and concrete block, has a utilitarian feel. But the interior has a warm and spacious ambiance. There is a profusion of natural light, a roomy kitchen designed for socializing, a bedroom that provides views of the Whitefish Range out one window and of the Livingston Range out of another and a tower that offers both a place of tranquility and views that might help keep track of a wildfire.
Molly Raney Shepherd was born in Woodland, California, and grew up in Bakersfield. But she has family ties to the Flathead Valley.
“My maternal great-grandfather, Thomas A. Churchill, settled in the Flathead Valley in 1891,” Shepherd said.
Churchill was one of Flathead County’s first commissioners. Shepherd’s grandmother grew up and went to school in the Flathead Valley.
Shepherd’s parents were Marksbury Raney, an agricultural manager, and Mary Raney, a homemaker who was active in the community. Shepherd has three younger brothers.
“We spent a lot of time in the Sierras when I was growing up,” she said. “My parents were lively, active people who loved the outdoors.”
Shepherd graduated in 1964 from Swarthmore College, a private, liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. For a time, she considered studying for a master’s degree in American history.
She ended up getting a law degree from the University of Montana School of Law.
Within days of moving to Missoula in 1975, Shepherd traveled with her soon-to-be-husband up to the North Fork to visit a colleague of his at the University of Montana. She was enchanted by the landscape and the lifestyles she encountered there.
In 1987, she purchased the 78 acres north of the Trail Creek Road. She hired a builder to construct the one-room cabin and associated outbuildings in 1988.
Her work in Missoula precluded regular visits to the North Fork. She dreamed of the day when she would be free to live there year-round.
That day came with retirement in 2003.
Shepherd’s 78 acres include an abundance of western larch, a fire-resistant conifer for which she feels a special affinity.
On a large loom, Shepherd weaves rugs in geometric patterns. One rug honors the larch. Its colors include a yellow representing the autumn hue of the trees’ needles.
Earlier this year, the Flathead Land Trust and Shepherd announced that she had arranged to place her 78 acres in a conservation easement with the land trust.
The easement allows her to own and manage the property as she has for years. The Flathead Land Trust said the easement “ensures that the property will never be subdivided or overly developed even after she passes it on to her heirs or it transfers to other owners, thus ensuring protection of its wildlife habitat and open space in perpetuity.”
Shepherd has a daughter, Kate Garnett, who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and a son, Nat Johnson, in Missoula.
Shepherd said this week that stewardship of the property and the habitat it provides for wildlife has been a focus from the beginning of her time on the land.
“When I first bought the place, it was pretty much a tangle,” she said. “It has been logged repeatedly and not very responsibly.”
Shepherd enrolled in coursework to learn about forest management and how to apply that knowledge to create a healthier landscape.
She said wildlife seems to find refuge on her property, which includes a bench above the Trail Creek drainage.
In 2015, a few days before Thanksgiving, Shepherd took her two Cairn terriers on a walk. They were leashed. As the trio headed back home, walking up from Trail Creek Road, Shepherd noticed the dogs staring at something nearby.
“I looked where they were looking and there was a huge grizzly bear looking at us and we were probably within about 25 feet of the bear,” she said.
“I had my bear spray out. I talked to the bear. It may well have reassured him that we were not a threat,” Shepherd said.
She and the dogs walked home.
“The bear stayed until the Monday after Thanksgiving,” she said. “It had killed an elk and cached the carcass and was sleeping on it.”
After the bear moved on, eagles and ravens and a host of other animals came to claim what the bear had not, Shepherd said.
Regional wildlife officials often say that many residents of the North Fork seem to have learned how to co-exist with grizzly bears. For example, the residents know how to secure items, like trash, that might attract the bears.
Shepherd carries bear spray when she strolls around her property.
It seems she fell in love with the North Fork at first sight and that time has done nothing but intensify her affection for the wild country and the community of people who occupy its outposts of private land.
“This is such a remarkable place,” Shepherd said. “I feel so lucky to have ended up here.”
Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at email@example.com or 758-4407.