‘Nowhere for cattle to go,’ some Montana ranches totally burned, Lodgepole Complex fire still burning
Travis and Mary Brown and their 2-year-old son Boedy are facing the same crispy, black fate as many of their neighbors. Several wildfires that have joined together called Lodgepole Complex, started from lightning strikes Monday (July 17) night, have swept through more than 270,000 acres in the past two weeks, and continues to burn at 36 percent containment, despite the best efforts of almost 700 exhausted firefighters.
The Browns are on Travis’ family’s place, founded by his great grandfather in the ‘60s. The fire has burnt approximately a third to half of their grass, and came dangerously close to their home place. Their 400 pairs are displaced. It is not yet known if they are alive or dead.
Travis and his hired men, Clint and Rick Potts, had been fighting fires since July 18 on their neighbors’ ranches. Travis finally returned home Friday morning to rest in his own bed, and after only an hour of sleep, Mary woke her husband to ask him if he knew the neighbor’s place was ablaze. Tim Weyers and Kim Zimmerman’s ranch was engulfed in flames and they lost nearly 100 percent of their grass.
“Travis jumped up and ran out of the house and started getting equipment,” Mary said. “By that time it had jumped the line and started heading our way.”
At one point the fire was licking at every single side of their ranch, located directly south of Highway 200, between Sand Springs and Mosby. The fire attempted to jump the highway at five different places, but was up against the Browns, their neighbors and day workers defending their home place, barn, horses, and corrals. While the neighbors were trying to save the Browns’ and Potts’ homes, the fire encroached on their places and burned their pastures.
“The only reason our horses are alive, our barn is still standing, our house is still there, is because of our neighbors,” Mary said. “There were 14- and 16-year-old kids on the back of trucks holding hoses spraying water. Nobody has slept in days. The people that are here are the ranchers, and they have not stopped working, they have not gotten out of their graders. They are trying desperately to save these ranches.”
One of Mary’s Facebook posts featured a photo of a wall of fire cresting a hill behind their home place. She wrote, “Have you ever seen a line of fire miles wide coming towards your houses, corrals, pastures and neighbors? I am sad to say that many people now in Garfield County can now say yes. At one point yesterday, I could see fire in every direction. We were lucky that none of our structures were damaged and our crew stayed safe and made good decisions to save animals and people from scary spots. I am absolutely humbled thinking of all the people who risked their lives to help us. A simple thank you doesn’t seem enough, but it is all we have at this point.”
Buildings and cattle
Sixteen homes have been consumed, though Anne Miller, Garfield County Public Information Officer stressed that some may not be primary residences.
“We’re working to get more information on that. They might be cabins or hunting camps compared to 16 homes with year-round families living in them,” she said.
It is unknown how many cattle have been affected, though some are starting to reappear, as well as herds gathered by volunteer riders. For those that survived, the next hurdle is treating burns and dust and smoke pneumonia, and feeding or transferring livestock.
“We have amazing people who have offered grass and hay and trucks,” Mary said. “We’re so scared right now; this is the worst drought we’ve had in 60 years. We’re scared to bring hay in here. We don’t want them to even bring hay. We would rather people use hay stacks that are still standing so donated hay isn’t lost.”
Bart and Misty Meged, owners of Miles City Livestock Commission, are the contact for hay donations. They can be reached at (406) 234-1790. Hay is needed, but contact is necessary to ensure someone is available to unload it, and that it ends up where it is most beneficial.
“The biggest thing now is there’s nowhere for cattle to go because it’s burned out totally,” Bart said. “We have to try to find some grass or feedlots to go to. We can haul hay in; we can buy some time, but the cattle have to be moved and go somewhere. We might have a week or 10 days, maybe have enough feed to get things organized to get out. In time, they’re going to need lots of fencing supplies, wire post pipelines, all the vent tubes are probably all burned out. Lots of solar panels on well systems, windmills, it’s hard to know really what they need. Hay deal is great, but there ain’t enough hay to get to them through with the shortage this year.”
Monetary donations are the most welcomed at this point and donations can be made to the Garfield County Fire Foundation at Garfield County Bank, PO Box 6, Jordan, MT 59337 or by calling (406) 557-2201.
“We have been completely overwhelmed and grateful for those who have helped. We have stopped food donations that are coming in, and have diverted food collections to other fires near Broadus. We want to make sure some other folks are taken care of as well,” Miller said. “That fund will be used for equipment losses and repair. We have one particular family that ran their Cat Challenger into the ground. They’re not sure if the engine can be repaired. That and their whisk disk have been hailed as saving a lot more acreage. The fire would have jumped those lines and burned a lot more equipment. They’re frantic to get that fixed due to our potentially incoming lighting storms.”
Travis’ friend from kindergarten begged for a ride for his grader to come fight fires with his long-time friends.
“Adam Vogel, Travis’ kindergarten friend and a farmer down in Huntley, Mont., has slept in his grader two nights, he’s that good of a friend, that good of a person. He dropped everything in his life,” Mary said. “Tucker Boyd, a guy who was working for us when we were first dating, dropped everything, came here and hasn’t left. He does not have to be here. None of these people has to help us. There is an evacuation plan in place for all the people that have been evacuated, north of Highway 200. Not a single person has showed up at the evacuation place, not a single person has quit working.”
Fire crews are hopeful that the Lodgepole Complex will be contained by Aug. 2, though the ever-looming concern is other fires easily started by lightning striking dry grass, including four fires south of Broadus and several in Northeast Wyoming. Ranchers are not out of the woods yet.
“We have had isolated thunderstorms roll through with high winds,” Miller said. “The concern is new fires as much as current fires. (As of Tuesday,) we have 611 people on the fire, close to 300 volunteers from the county, and most of those 300 have been on the fire since last Tuesday.”
Constant updates have been flooding Facebook, creating a tool for those involved to stay connected and those looking on to stay informed. Amy Thompson and her mom Carrie Walters have organized a Facebook page and auction, Fire Relief Fund for Garfield and Neighboring Counties in Montana. The approximately 100 auction items have garnered $25,000 in donations as of Tuesday. Bids can be placed until noon MST Monday.
“People are still giving me items to put in the auction, and I warn them that as it gets closer to the weekend, they may not get as many bids,” Thompson said. “We just want the funds to be available ASAP.” The auction began with the donation of stallion fees on the three stallions owned by Thompson and Walters.
The U.S. government has rejected Montana’s request for financial aid, NBC Montana reported Tuesday.
“The real story is the one about our local ranch community and firefighters coming together to stand against this monster,” said Cori Collins, daughter to a rancher affected by Lodgepole Complex fire. “There are peoples’ homes who have burnt when they were gone defending a neighbor’s. People are giving hay, knowing they already don’t have enough to make it through the winter. They are fighting fire with everything they’ve got for days with no sleep and no food. They are trashing their trucks, trailers, and ATBs to make it through impassable terrain and flames. It breaks my heart to think of all those men who are depleted, beat down, beyond exhausted, yet still go on for the sake of another. I would love to see our local heroes recognized.” ❖