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Souvenir T-shirt makers make hay while the fires burn

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Skinny columns of smoke rise from the pines midway up the Bitterroot mountains west of Florence. The sun, dipping toward dusk, casts an eerie orange glow over the Nomex-clad firefighters wandering around their camp. Across Klements Lane, beneath a pop-up tent, Kevin Blackler folds the arms of a black hoodie. Rows of T-shirts are lined neatly along the table in front of him, all with the image of a slurry bomber dropping retardant on a forest inferno and the words "Lolo Peak Wildfire" in bold.

"I'm hoping I'll sell out maybe 20 more shirts and we'll do another print run," Blackler says. "But I'd like to go up to the Rice Ridge fire, to tell you the truth."

This is Blackler's fourth night selling his son Alex's designs on the Lolo Peak fire. The two operate the Missoula-based print shop Last Best Apparel, and fire-themed shirts have become a regular part of their summer business. Blackler got started during the Gash Creek fire in 2006. He estimates they've designed souvenir shirts for a dozen area fires, including last year's 8,658-acre Roaring Lion fire and the Sapphire Complex currently raging outside Philipsburg.

"We watch the InciWeb all the time just to make sure that we aren't going to be printing for a camp that's going to be disbanded," Blackler says. "I've had that happen before."

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The Blacklers' shirts offer a local twist on a cottage industry that's operated on the periphery of wildfire camps for decades. Some of these entrepreneurs—"the pros," Blacker calls them—travel the West from fire to fire, printing and selling hundreds or thousands of shirts to firefighters hungry for mementos. Blacker admits his sales are comparatively modest.

"When you get new crews in, it gets going pretty good, and when the crews are getting ready to leave," he says. "In the meantime it's just kind of hit and miss."

About 80 yards from the Blacklers' tent, in a field designated for overflow parking, Stevensville resident Daniel Lyon stands next to his merchandise table. There's no mention of Lolo Peak on his shirts, just the words "Forged By Fire Apparel" below a single orange flame. His brand is a motivational one, Lyon says, and stems from his own experience with wildfire. Lyon is the sole survivor of Engine 642, which was overtaken by Washington's Twisp River fire in 2015. He was burned over nearly 70 percent of his body. His three engine-mates were killed.

"Being that these guys have experienced losing their own on this fire," Lyon says of the Lolo Peak firefighters, "if I didn't tell my message and talk about what got me through this, I'd kind of be doing a disservice."

As Lyon shares his story with customers, fire staffer Ruth Lewis walks up wearing a shirt from the 2009 Kootenai Creek fire. It's one of a personal collection she estimates at more than 100 shirts, all from fires she's worked on. "It's a keepsake," she says of her collection's latest addition, one of Lyon's shirts, clutched in her hand. "A memory."

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