Lodgepole Complex fire

Charred trees stand on blackened earth along Old Stage Road in Garfield County Thursday, after the Lodgepole Complex fire burned through the area.

CASEY PAGE, Gazette Staff

So much hay, food, fence materials, money and other donations have poured into Garfield County since the Lodgepole Complex fires tore through more than 270,000 acres of rangeland in July that officials there are asking donors to redirect their support elsewhere in Montana.

“We’ve been just overwhelmed by the local generosity,” said Anne Miller, a county spokeswoman and deputy coordinator for the county’s disaster and emergency services office.

Although the supplies were desperately needed to combat the months-long drought and catastrophic fires that have battered the local ranching community this summer, Miller said coordinating the massive influx of support in the fires' aftermath was at times its own struggle.

To date, they’ve received 375 truckloads of hay, which she estimates at more than 8,000 tons. Hundreds of miles of livestock fences have been repaired with donated labor and materials, after the fires destroyed an estimated 1,400 miles of fence.

And the Garfield County Fire Foundation’s checking account, at about $400 prior to the fires’ rampage, has swollen to about $750,000 in the past month-and-a-half, according to Garfield County Bank CEO Rex Phipps, who manages the nonprofit’s account.

“It’s quite the moniker to have the largest wildfire in the nation for 2017 so far, but the silver lining for us is that now that we’ve been through all this, we can help other communities in their response and relief efforts,” Miller said.

Managing donations

During the initial days of the relief effort in late July, county staff and local volunteers struggled to coordinate a deluge of aid from around the state and country. The county DES website was updated frequently with new contact information for volunteers managing donations, as some were quickly overwhelmed by the response.

Eventually, Miller and a team of volunteers delegated the work, with people dedicated to coordinating the distribution of donated hay, or food and water for firefighters, while local businesses in Jordan and other communities provided storage as supplies were trucked in. They even developed a system for ranchers to collect materials to rebuild fences while also picking up hydraulic oil and fuel for the equipment they used during the initial fire response.

Although her county is one of the 10 most sparsely populated in the state, Miller said during the past month she’s helped local officials and emergency coordinators from around Montana and in some cases, those responding to fires out of state.

Some useful, some not

In Custer County, Fire Chief Bud Peterson said he also became overwhelmed by the pace of donations in response to the grass fires that recently tore through broad swaths of land near Miles City. He was forced to delegate the task to the co-owner of a local stockyard, who also sought out Garfield County’s newfound expertise to set up a structured response to the torrent of philanthropy.

“These donations are coming so fast that I just got to kind of direct them to someone who has the time for it,” Peterson said, adding that they had already received more than enough food donations. “If they want to contribute monetarily at this time, it would be more than welcome, because that way it can be directed to fuel, fencing costs and feed costs for some of these people that have been totally burned out.”

Farther south, in Rosebud County, crews this week finished containing a massive blaze that chewed through nearly 100,000 acres in just a few days. In the days after it was reported, food, bottled water, baby wipes and other items began pouring in to the Rosebud County Sheriff’s Office.

“Some of the stuff is really useful to us, some of it is not so much. I appreciate what people have been sending, but it’s just one of those deals where I don’t think people understand what we’re doing or how we’re doing it,” Rosebud County Fire Chief Rod Dressback said. “Right now, I’m sitting with a large quantity of sunscreen. Sunscreen is not something we pay attention to putting on.”

He added that non-perishable foods like beef jerky, granola bars and canned foods — Chef Boyardee, specifically — are far more useful.

Looking west

Following their dramatic sweep through hundreds of thousands of acres of range land in Garfield and Petroleum Counties in late July, the four fires that made up the Lodgepole Complex have been out for weeks. That they didn’t grow beyond their eventual footprint is in large part because local ranchers and volunteer firefighters gave up sleep, work and supplies during the desperate fight to save their livelihoods. Some lost cattle, and nearly all who were affected had miles of livestock fencing and broad swaths of their pastures razed by the fires.

Miller said donations can still help local ranchers, but with some of the nation’s largest active fires now threatening communities throughout Western Montana, she’s begun asking would-be donors to look to communities like Lincoln, Eureka and Stevensville that will also be struggling to make ends meet in the months ahead.

She’s currently recommending that donors seek out local fire departments, who often act as first responders to new wildfire starts and in many cases are battling the flames alongside crews from state and federal agencies.

Miller also worked with state officials to begin centralizing a system of for donations pouring into Montana. In late July, the state Department of Agriculture rolled out its Fire and Drought Assistance Hotline, for hay and feed donations. And Thursday the department also announced it was expanding the Montana Hay Lottery to accept hay and donations toward transportation costs.

“We’re still actively collecting donations in the area.” Miller said. “But (regarding donations of) hay and fencing, people feel strongly that our community has been very well cared for, and we do not want to distract anyone from the efforts occurring on the western part of the state.”

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General assignment reporter for the Billings Gazette.