One day after the smoke cleared: Ted and Barb Crowley, East Fork Fire, Chinook, Montana
October 17, 2017
East Fork Fire
August 27, 2017- September 13, 2017
It's been just a day since Ted and Barb Crowley and their family put out the last hot spot, gathered the last sooty cattle and started rethinking their fall and winter plans.
The East Fork Fire burned about 21,000 acres of the rugged Bearpaw mountains, including about 65 percent of the Crowleys' pasture—mostly fall and winter pasture that hadn't been grazed yet.
The fire was helped along by a wet fall last year that left plenty of grass in the pastures, then a D4 drought this summer.
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Ted Crowley, who ranches with his two sons and daughter and their families, runs a commercial herd of cattle. They've diversified to allow their whole family to stay on the ranch. One son, Teddy, and his wife Sara, run a couple hundred registered Angus cattle. Ted and Barb's daughter, Una, and her husband, Todd Ford, have a Quarter Horse operation and sell their horses with Stan and Nancy Weaver. Their other son, Clint, and his wife, Jacy, run a hunting outfitting business.
Just like with all the ranch jobs, like preconditioning—which was continuing as planned even before the fire was called contained—the Crowleys worked together to fight the fire and support the more than 100 volunteers who were also lending a hand.
Barb Crowley was responsible for making sure food was ready when needed and that every person on the fire lines was fed. But she wasn't alone.
"We had numerous hot dishes brought in by neighbors and from the outlying towns. We'd feed everyone around our home. Whoever was here was fed," Barb said.
If firefighters couldn't make it in from the fire, several volunteers, including Una Crowley, took the food to them. "We tried to hit everyone on the line, as far as they could go," Barb said.
While sandwiches are the go-to food for firefighting, Barb said they made a point of serving at least one hot meal every day. She was serving about 40 people every morning for breakfast for several days—biscuits and gravy, pancakes and sausage, sweet rolls donated by the local grocery store, homemade breakfast burritos, fresh fruit, coffee. The meals were the centerpiece around which the volunteers gathered and swapped stories, rested and relaxed, if even for just a few minutes. "I just wanted it to be home to them while they were away from home," Barb said, with tears in her voice. "It was a tough time… But I'd do it again in a heartbeat."
The first three nights the fire was burning, Barb said they didn't go to bed because the fire was so close. The rest of the 10-day long ordeal she went to bed at around 11 p.m. or midnight and was up and going by 4 a.m. "You just do what you have to do. I had super help. I couldn't have done it without all that help. I just can't praise my neighbors and family and friends, and even people I didn't know, enough for the help they gave us."
The first day the fire started she was trailing cows out of the pastures closest to the fire and came home to a kitchen full of people who had prepared the evening meal. "It was just a whole community working together," Barb said.
While they were gathering cattle, Una posted on Facebook that they needed riders immediately to help gather and move cattle. Barb said, "Before we got to the road there was the rodeo club, people from the Stockgrowers, the vet's wife, riding up to meet us. The neighbor girl brought a bunch of college kids. It was amazing how it went. We could just string them out and down the road we came. It was just unreal."
The fire got close enough to Teddy and Clint's houses that their families evacuated, but Ted and Barb stayed.
"There was no loss of family, friends, neighbors," Barb said. No one lost their home, no one was injured. I'm satisfied with the way things turned out. You look out, it's black, but you have so many things to be thankful for. So many."
Since the fire was contained, they've focused on gathering as many cattle as they can and sorting them out. Ted said they preconditioned what was supposed to be about 300 head of calves right after the fire, but they were about 50 short. They're optimistic that most of them will turn up, though.
"It's amazing they can survive what they did. Some are still trickling out of the hills," Teddy said. "I have no idea how they lived, but evidently they know where to go."
He said they think that once they get all the cattle gathered out of their own and the neighbors' pastures, and everything sorted out, their livestock losses will be minimal. Some neighbors did lose some cattle.
With the drought in full force, Teddy said they had already contracted for quite a bit of hay, and luckily it hadn't been delivered yet.
They typically wean calves at the end of October and start feeding cows around the first of January. They have some grass left in their summer pastures, since they try to use it conservatively, even in a drought. Several neighbors have also volunteered pasture to help them get by.
Ted said they're sticking pretty close to their usual management plan, with some small modifications. They will send their bred heifers to market, which they usually keep at home until November or December and sell private treaty. PAYS Livestock owner Joe Goggins offered to pick them up and feed them until they find a buyer or send them through the auction.
Teddy said the only other major adjustment they think they'll have to make to their management is to change up their grazing pattern, to let the burned pastures rest long enough for the grass to recover fully. "I think we're set up good enough and have enough neighbors helping us out with grass that I don't think we'll have to sell down," he said. "That's the biggest thing I'd like to make the point of – thanking everyone. There was an overwhelming response from the community."
While there are some changes on the now-black horizon, a few things had to continue as planned.
The Weaver Quarter Horse Sale—always a busy time for the Ford and Crowley families—took place as scheduled just a week after the fire was out.
They held to the scheduled Oct. 27 ship date for their calves.
But in the midst of all the busy fall work, they're also rebuilding fences and keeping an eye out for anything that could spark another fire. They aren't alone though, as neighbors, friends and strangers continue to donate and help out.
That support has been a big help as they recover from the exhaustion and uncertainty of those 10 days.
"The main thing was fear—what are you going to lose, who was going to be lost," Barb said. "How many cattle or horses, things like that, were we going to lose. For some reason I just felt like we were going to come out okay. Something was telling me things were going to be okay. It happened. Today is a new day. Start over and be positive."