Wildfire Threatens Jordan, Montana: High Winds, High Temperatures, Low Humidity Fuel Flames
for Tri-State Livestock News
A fire started a few miles north of Jordan, Montana raged out of control in Wednesday’s high winds, nearly engulfing the town. An order to evacuate was issued at 3:45 in the afternoon, and residents were told to go west on Highway 200 because travel was not safe in any other direction. Shelter was arranged in the tiny town of Winnett, seventy-five miles away. Electrical power was shut off to the town.
Clayton Phipps, a lifelong Garfield County resident and graduate of Jordan High School who ranches about forty miles to the northwest, heard the fire alert around 1:30 in the afternoon. He headed to Jordan from Fort Peck, calling his son to get the fire fighting pickup at the ranch and meet him in Jordan. He nearly didn’t make it as the fire jumped the highway just minutes after he drove through and the highway was closed to traffic.
“I could see the smoke all the way from the dam at Fort Peck,” Phipps said. “When we got to Jordan we could see the blaze. The first thing I did was to go to the Sheriff’s office to pick up a handheld radio I had asked them to set out for me so that we could communicate with other crews. It was pretty chaotic.”
Area ranchers, county fire crews and Bureau of Land Management fire crews fought to keep the town from going up in smoke.
Phipps and his sons Luke and Daniel were joined by his cousin’s son, Blaine. They headed north of town to the west flank of the fire, but had trouble getting where they needed to be because the terrain was too rough for Phipps’ pickup. They headed back to Jordan to do what they could there.
Blaine got a message from his mother, requesting that they go to St. John the Baptist Catholic Church and get the Tabernacle to safety in case the building went up in flames.
“While we were in church retrieving the Tabernacle, I told the boys, ‘Let’s say a quick prayer,’” Phipps said.
The four of them knelt and Phipps asked God to spare the town of Jordan.
“I couldn’t remember the name of the Patron Saint of fires,” he said. “But we prayed together.”
Phipps and the boys went to the north side of town where there were buildings and trees ablaze. They fought spot fires with other crews while the main fire roared around the town.
“It was chaos,” Phipps said.
But the town was spared.
By 7 p.m. the evacuation order was lifted and residents were able to return, but the fire still raged on to the south. The unincorporated town of Cohagen was evacuated around six p.m. and Highway 59 between Jordan and Miles City remained closed to traffic until 9 p.m. Phipps said he and other crews stayed alert and busy well into the night but were able to quit around midnight.
Information posted by the Miles City Interagency Dispatch Center indicated that 47,000 acres burned in the fire. Several other fires burned in Rosebud and Custer Counties at the same time, totaling over 100,000 acres burned on Wednesday in Eastern Montana. Another fire continues to burn in the Billings area.
Phipps is thankful that his hometown was spared and believes he witnessed a miracle.
“I know we weren’t the only ones praying,” he said.
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Outtagrass Cattle Co. cartoon by Jan Swan Wood for the Oct. 23, 2021, edition of Tri-State Livestock News