Montana ranchers continue to rebuild after devastating Lodgepole Complex fire
The Lodgepole Complex devoured 427 square miles of grass in eastern Montana earlier this month, and while more yet have cropped up around the state, ranchers who have lost some or all of their pastures have taken steps to rebuild and care for their cattle.
Fewer cattle were lost to fires than was expected, one of few blessings in an otherwise charred world.
Many cattle have respiratory issues and ranchers are finding ways to feed their cattle. Many producers are shipping cattle to feedlots and leased ground wherever they can find some and are feeding hay bales that have been donated from all over the country. Hay crops are already limited throughout Montana due to the dry season this year, and it wasn’t uncommon for hay stacks throughout the state to have burned to the ground, so donations have been important and appreciated.
“We just had four semi-loads of hay from small farmers and ranchers by Kalispell, Mont.,” said Dave Dutton, a rancher near Sand Springs, who lost no cattle, but 85 percent of his grass. “It’s just things like that that have been amazing. They came out and had supper with us, just been an amazing outpouring of support.”
None of the Duttons’ pastures are capable of hosting any livestock and unless unlikely autumn rains fall, grass won’t be available until spring, if it rains then. It is unadvisable to graze that grass, however, until as late as July or August of 2018.
“We just have to get to fencing here, but we’ve got the cattle situated, so we can draw a deep breath or two,” Dutton said. “It’s going to be a long time to get that done. In that whole fire, there were hundreds of miles of fencing lost. A lot of it was old fencing that needed to be done anyway, but we didn’t plan on doing it all at once. The other long-term thing will be giving the grass the chance to get reestablished and grow. Unless we get fall moisture, next spring and calving is going to be very difficult for us. I’m not sure what we’ll do, but we’ll figure something out.”
On July 28, a Friday, Dutton had taken his dad Bruce Sutton into Billings for a doctor appointment. He was aware fires were burning in his area, but they were way to the north of the Dutton place, so he wasn’t concerned. He got the call that day informing him the fire was headed his way. Not knowing what conditions Dave would bring his father home to, he left his father in the safety of an available room in an assisted living facility for a few days.
“My son and hired man went to fight it that day, when my neighbor said it was getting to them,” Dave said. “I didn’t think it would come out of the rough country. It was within a couple hundred yards of our house, and right next to our son’s house. It went near the next door neighbors house, within 100 yards of his before they got it back.”
Bill Harris, of the Harris Ranch 20 miles north of Mosby, Mont., is still missing several horses and cows from the same fire. He was also coming home from Billings when trouble arose on his place.
“By the time I got home, the fire was over to the south of our place. Lightning struck in the middle of a Wilderness Study Area (WSA) and burned from the south and east from there,” he said.
There were five other fires happening in the area that day, and the one nearest Harris was low in priority. Once it made its way out of the Sandage Coulee, there was more power to the fire than was anticipated.
“They started bombing it with retardant. The ranchers couldn’t get a handle on it,” Harris said. “It was too hot and moving too hard. If they had a bigger crew, they could have stopped it at that point.”
The WSA was set aside in the 60s and 70s with the “thought of expanding and making wilderness of this rougher country. It didn’t happen,” Harris said. He is able to graze the WSA, but no vehicles are permitted, nor water lines or fences.
“It builds up a lot of fuel, and so where there is no access to it, when fire starts in it, it burns a lot more aggressively, and they don’t address it until it burns up out of it,” Harris said.
Harris has recovered almost all of his cows and most of his horses. A bunch of his cattle were shipped to a feedlot. He lost four colts in the fire, including one with its front legs burnt so badly, it was beyond repair. Harris’s counts come up short by three mares and two more colts, though a neighbor said he may have spotted a pair while flying, giving Harris hope they will be found.
“There’s been very little loss, and that’s proven true all over,” Harris said. He also estimated 80 to 85 percent of his grass has been lost.
“I’m the last of the great optimists. I’m hoping for fall rain,” he said. “If it doesn’t, it will be slow in the spring coming back. I’ve been on the ranch 28 years and this is the driest I’ve seen. We’ve had two-tenths of rain since the 16th of March. I’m just hoping that changes, that the weather system changes and we get fall growth and it gets stronger in the spring. That’s all we can hope for.”
Lee and Toni Murnion live in Jordan, but lease a ranch along Lodgepole Creek and lost an estimated 98 percent of their grass to the fire.
NOT ENOUGH HELP
Several times while fighting the fire, Lee thought had he and his crew had more assistance, a large fire could have been extinguished.
“If we had a little more help, we could have put one out. In the end, I wondered if we would have been better off going home and going to bed,” Lee said. “Several times it felt like we were winning, but if you look back it was coming from every direction. We feel like a little more help would have been in order. There was a lot of help, but it was just a local here and a local there plus a bunch of people who don’t know where they are, and fire everywhere.”
Lee asked, on several occasions, for assistance from BLM employees either to be told they weren’t authorized or could help only for a very limited time.
“I asked several BLM people for help. They would help for a while, and you would turn around and they would be gone, or they said they had to go get water and would never come back,” he said. “Everybody you talk to is not authorized to do this or that, and their big thing is saving structures. There also needs to be a bit of consideration for people’s pastureland, but that seems to be the last thing. If you put the fire out on the pasture, it won’t reach the house.”
Currently the Murnions have cows on pasture in the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge north of Jordan. They were able to retain some cows on one pasture they were able to save.
“The locals do the bigger end of putting out the fires, though I guess they have a bigger stake in it,” Lee said. “I can’t say enough good of our neighbors and volunteer firefighters. They deserve the thumbs up.”
The amount of support flooding in from around the nation has left Lee in awe.
“It’s very overwhelming what people want to do for you. It’s kind of hard to accept any of it. We’re in no different of a situation than we were before, still no grass,” he said. “People want to give you the shirt off their back. It gives you a little more faith in people now.”
Fundraising efforts are still in place and are as needed now as when the prairies were still alight by fires burning from Jordan to Mosby and beyond. A Facebook group has been established since the beginning as a platform to donate and bid on auction items, as well as share stories, victories, losses and hay support. Fire Relief Fund for Garfield and Neighboring Counties in Montana was started by Amy Thompson and her mom Carrie Walters. They still have ongoing auctions.
“As we are wrapping up the first auction, we have totaled over $45,000 and still going up with generous added donations from the amazing people who bought items,” Thompson said. “I can’t begin to thank everyone for the generous outpouring of support. We are prepping for another auction to begin next week. Date has not been set yet as there are lots of new items being added to the list. The continued support is beyond a blessing. Look forward to adding to our current total for these folks. It’s not about the right now, it’s about down the road. These people will be burdened for many months to come and I want these funds available to ease those burdens.”
An account has been established at rea banks to receive direct donations. Checks may be made to Garfield County Fire Foundation and mailed to Garfield County Bank, PO Box 6, Jordan, MT 59337, (406) 557-2201, or sent to Circle c/o Redwater Valley Bank, PO Box 60, Circle, MT 59215, (406) 485-4782. ❖