Burned out: Musselshell ranchers battle Lodgepole fire

Managing Editor

A charred yucca bush surrounded by scorched earth tops a rim of the Musselshell River Breaks, providing stark contrast to the green fields below Monday afternoon.

Photo by Jenny Gessaman

Bill Harris and his two cattle dogs take a break from the heat in Harris’ front yard, part of which now houses cattle he evacuated from burning pasture.
Photo by Jenny Gessaman

Rancher Bill Harris stands under the shade trees outside his house, eyeing the hillside above his ranch through the smokey haze, looking for flames.

“It’s been a rough year,” he said. “First the drought and now this.”

The “this” Harris is referencing is Montana’s largest fire, a group of four individual fires now grown together into the Lodgepole Complex. Burning through the dry, rugged terrain of the Musselshell breaks country east of Winnett, the fire has blackened 250,000 acres and stretched across 390 square miles.

The Harris ranch, which straddles the river and the Petroleum/Garfield county lines, may be the epicenter.

Harris is convinced two of the four fires started in or near what he refers to as his pastures: public land grazing allotments that carried over 300 head of cattle.

Of his 22,000 acres, a combination of deeded land and grazing allotments, Harris estimates around 14,000 acres has burned.


Fighting fire alone

Lightning strikes on July 19 initiated the four fires in the Lodgepole Complex. Harris was in Billings on business when the first fire on his ranch was spotted.

“My son, Destry, called me the day after the storm to say we had a fire, but he didn’t know how big it was and I had some things to take care of in town,” Harris said. “By the time I got back, I could see the smoke and I was wondering what I would find when I got home.”


Harris said he and his son, along with a few volunteers, mostly family members and neighbors, fought the fire for two days on their own.

Harris said he was amazed by who showed up to help.

“Two guys from Circle came in with their own private pumper truck, my sons-in-law, some of the Butcher kids from Winifred, a guy from Billings who works with my son, some folks from Winnett – we were all working to build fire breaks to try and stop the fire.”


They carved firebreaks by hand with shovels and by disking up the dried, packed earth, protecting fences and hay bales, and moved livestock out of danger.

It was hot work, 101 degrees on Sunday, and nerve wracking.

“For a while we thought the fire had turned the other way and we were left with at least a strip of pasture, but then the wind shifted and the fire came back and burned that up,” Harris said. “All we could do was watch.”


Harris believes the main fire in the Lodgepole Complex started in the middle of a 10,000-acre Wilderness Study Area near his place.

“They had it contained with aircraft, but it got away from them. The back end kept burning up there in Sandage Coulee. The firefighters all went to the south end and I kept telling them, ‘You need to get some people back up here on the north end.’”

Harris said he felt the fact that it was a wilderness study area affected the firefighting approach.

“I don’t think they were that aggressive on it, and then it blew up. It made me sick to my stomach because I knew what would happen. They could have stopped it easy if they had been here earlier.”



Professional help arrives

“The firefighters came in last night,” Harris said, meaning Sunday.


By Monday afternoon, Harris’s ranch was a hub of firefighting activity, with a fleet of vehicles parked in his front yard. Busses marked Silver City, New Mexico Hot Shots sit next to fire trucks from Missoula and a private tanker truck from Lodge Grass.

Fire crews line the county road in front of the ranch, setting backfires in the sagebrush to create a fire line.

Fire fighters driving ATVs stop by the house for sandwiches and burritos, made and donated by Winnett residents and stored coolers on the front porch.

A tanker driver wants to know if he can get to the river to fill his tank.

A Mid-Rivers technician shows up to see if Harris’s internet service is still on.

A McCone Electric lineman arrives, checking on power and looking for downed poles that need to be replaced.


While all the activity gives Harris a small sense of relief, there is still much to worry about.

At only 20 percent contained, the fire is still mostly out of control. The containment line is south of Highway 200. North of the highway, where Harris lives, no one’s property is in the clear yet.

About 50 residents from the area are still on mandatory evacuation.

Fire crews, staged out of a fire administrative area set up in Sand Springs, are being deployed to stop fire progression and protect residences, livestock and grazing lands, according to press releases.


The aftermath

With little left to burn on his place, Harris is turning his thoughts to what comes next.


“We brought the cows down and they’re on the hay fields and in corrals at the barn,” Harris said. “We don’t know if we lost any, but we got most of them down here. We did lose three colts, and four of my mares are missing. Someone said they saw one of them, so they may be ok but we haven’t been able to get up there to look.”


But the biggest issue for Harris is the loss of his grazing land and how to feed his cattle.

“I already have someone looking around the Absarokee area for pasture,” Harris said. “I might put some of them at a feed lot. I’m trying to find hay – I’ve got 200 head in corrals that need to be fed and, because of the drought, we are way short of hay.”


Harris is not alone in his worries. All across the fire area other ranchers are dealing with the same thing.

“Someone told me 30 ranches have been burned out,” Harris said. “Some people are worse off than me – I feel bad for everyone, for what’s happened. It’s so terrible dry, and the fire moves easy and fast.”


Fencing is another issue – miles and miles of it has burned up, with charred remnants of wooden posts dangling along fence lines, held up only by the fence wires. In other areas fences are completely down.

“The cost of replacing all those fences is astronomical,” Harris said.


And he expects to bear that cost himself.

“Insurance won’t cover it. As for FEMA – well, we had them out here when the place flooded a few years ago and after days of calculating, all they offered me was a low interest loan. Their idea of low interest was the same as what I could get from my own bank,” Harris said.


Yet, with all of that, Harris is surprisingly hopeful about the future.

“People have been so good to help. I heard there was someone putting together a donation of fencing materials,” he said. “I think other help will come. A year like this just makes me want to stay here and work.


“And the grass should be really good next year,” he added.



What is your favorite part of the Fair?