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Perfect Storm: Volunteers and Multiple Agencies Battled Terrifying Huff Fire
Garfield County, Montana residents are a hardy, crusty bunch. They are tough and resilient, like the sagebrush that grows on the rough prairie landscape they call home.
And they’ve got each others’ backs.
“When there’s a need, they show up,” said Anne Miller, Disaster and Emergency Services Coordinator for Garfield County. “You know that if something happens someone will be there to help.”
No one wanted that occasion to be a fire that burned a total of 46,892 acres on September 2, 2020. No one wanted to see cattle wandering across blackened pastures, a year’s hay supply and hundred year old cottonwood trees smoldering for a week, outbuildings, barns, fences, corrals in ruined, charred heaps.
Garfield county knows that scenario only too well. In 2017 the Lodgepole fire burned over 270,000 acres in the western part of the county.
No one wanted to see that ever again, but Miller said she ended up working with nearly the same crew as she had during the Lodgepole fire. It wasn’t what anyone wanted but Miller said that the response from both volunteers and local, state and Federal agencies was tremendous and she knew that everyone was giving their utmost as they battled the blaze.
“Our hats are off to the Miles City Interagency Dispatch Center,” she said. “They did a great job keeping information current and they got the resources that we needed to us quickly.”
Fueled by strong, shifting winds, high temperatures, low humidity and a cold front moving in mid-afternoon that pushed wind speeds even further, the blaze was unpredictable and frightening. NOAA was supplying Miller with maps showing how and where the fire was traveling and she said that the speed the hot spot was moving was incredible. Even veteran firefighters and ranchers who have all fought their share of prairie fires said this one scared them.
“We knew it was serious when it meant that the firefighters were calling family members in Jordan and telling them to get out,” Miller said. “It was moving so fast. It was almost impossible to combat it with normal human speed. I know there were a lot of pickups with pumpers in the back that had the gas pedal to the floor many times, either racing to try to get into position to fight the fire where needed or racing to get out of a dangerous spot.”
Even though this was a very dangerous fire, Miller said they were truly blessed with safety. The evacuation of Jordan went smoothly; 154 students were evacuated from the school in eight minutes. There was no loss of human life or any major injuries to fire crew members and volunteers.
Unfortunately, there was a head on collision of two vehicles in the heavy smoke on Highway 59 during the fire.
“There was someone who was an EMT working on one of the engines that was at that part of the fire,” Miller said. “This individual was able to provide care until the ambulance from Jordan could get through the smoke wall to provide help. The Custer County Ambulance from Miles City came up from the south and the two crews were able to get the injured people to the hospital.”
Another near miss occurred when the fire was crossing Highway 200 east of Jordan; an individual bringing in additional fire response vehicles had to abandon the vehicle she was driving because she couldn’t see the road.
“A BLM crew member saw her through the smoke, flagging him down,” Miller said. “It was a Godsend that he was there at that moment because the smoke was so thick she might not have been able to make her way out.”
Losses of livestock and property are substantial and the emotional impact of the evacuation, devastation and knowing just how close Jordan was to going up in smoke while watching other farms, ranches and small towns in western states and neighboring counties burn has left behind a feeling of horror.
“Everyone knows that could have been us,” Miller said. “There is burned ground literally inches away from homes. Window shades are melted in houses on the north side of town. This has had a huge impact on everyone.”
Thankfully, no primary homes were lost. Twenty secondary structures were lost, but this is not counting corrals. Livestock death losses are still being tallied; approximately 200 sheep are dead, and Miller has heard several unconfirmed reports of dead cattle.
“Losses are significant,” Miller said. “I know one producer who carefully stacked his hay in separate areas said the fire burned all of his stacks. Sometimes even if you take every precaution things don’t turn out well. We are still working on damage reports. The department of revenue got to work immediately to adjust appraisals for people who lost buildings. This will help provide at least slight relief in their taxes. The Farm Service Agency is setting up at the fairgrounds to help affected producers work through the claims process.”
Miller and a team of people spent a day doing the grisly task of searching for, documenting and putting down sheep injured in the fire.
“Animal care and welfare is so important to us in the ag community,” she said. “That was a hard one. We are caregivers, and euthanasia is not something you want to do. We had no choice, but it was very draining.”
Others are stepping forward in big and small ways to help their neighbors.
“Right now cattle on the highways are one of the biggest livestock issues we’re dealing with,” Miller said. “There are so many fences down that the cattle are wandering. Fortunately most of the people in this area know how to deal with livestock. I get texts telling me that someone put so and so’s cattle back in, or that someone put some cattle in they didn’t recognize but they got the brands so we can figure it out, or ‘I got them off the road but the gate is hanging by the chain and a bolt.’ everyone has been so good about it.”
Ranchers devastated by the Lodgepole fire not only showed up to fight the Huff fire, they are now coming alongside their neighbors in the aftermath to be present and offer empathy and support as well as helping hands.
“It’s so wonderful to see people from one side of the county saying, ‘We’ve been there. We’ll help you get through this,’” Miller said. “A rancher who lost most of his fences in the Lodgepole fire was one of the first people who called me to offer help. He had been the recipient of help and now he’s coming with a crew and materials to help a rancher affected by the Huff fire and pay it forward. The folks who went through the Lodgepole fire understand from an emotional standpoint because they know what it’s like to lose everything.”
Garfield County DES is compiling lists of ranchers in need to match with donors offering hay, feed, fencing supplies, and help. The Garfield County Fire Foundation Fund, originally established for donations after the Lodgepole fire, has been reactivated.
The Huff Fire reached 100% containment on September 8th. This was possible thanks to the massive amounts of mutual aid received from neighboring areas sending firefighters, EMTS and Law Enforcement Officers. They worked side by side with residents and ranchers that responded for Garfield County. A cool, rainy Labor Day brought around an inch of precipitation to the area as well; interestingly, the heaviest band of rain almost exactly matched the fire area.
A heartfelt thank you goes out to the Responding Fire Departments who sent both wildland and structure engines, the vast majority of which rely only on volunteers: Petroleum, Prairie, Dawson/West Glendive, Fallon/Baker, Richland/Sidney, Roosevelt, Fergus/Grass Range/Heath, Custer, Rosebud, McCone/Circle, Wibaux, and the State of North Dakota; to McCone & Prairie County EMTs who aided in ambulance runs and served on standby; to the County Sheriff Offices who sent personnel to help: Custer, Fallon, Roosevelt, Sheridan, Petroleum, Rosebud, and McCone; to the Federal Agencies lending personnel and equipment: the Bureau of Land Management, the US Forest Service, the Department of Natural Resources and the US Fish & Wildlife Services.
Garfield County folks are coming together to pick up the pieces. The ground is still charred, but the prairie will turn green again. Neighbors helping neighbors will bring healing and restoration.
“When there’s a need in this community somebody’s always right there,” Miller said.
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Outtagrass Cattle Co. cartoon by Jan Swan Wood for the Oct. 23, 2021, edition of Tri-State Livestock News