SAND SPRINGS — Travis Brown feels blessed, despite losing tens of thousands of acres of range land to what he described Monday as a “five-mile wall of fire” that raced across his ranch over the weekend.

That’s about a third of the rolling, grassy hills that make up Brown's L O Bar Ranch about seven miles west of Sand Springs, far less than some of his neighbors who he said lost almost everything.

"We got up there and it was by far one of the biggest fires anyone had ever seen," Brown said. "In hindsight, we should have started back-firing off the highway, but what kind of fire jumps a highway?"

Over the weekend, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock signed an executive order declaring a fire emergency in the state as the 250,000-acre complex of blazes continues to rage across Eastern Montana. Across the state, more than 300,000 acres have burned. 

The Lodgepole Complex, which includes three fires that destroyed about a dozen homes in northeastern Montana, was five percent contained according to a Monday update from fire officials. Measuring containment has been a challenge as shifting winds have driven the blaze in different directions.

The blaze also consumed ranch land and depleted hay supplies. Fences were either destroyed or cut by landowners in an attempt to save cattle. Officials continued a Red Flag warning with more hot and dry conditions expected in the region. An expected cold front passing through the area could bring high winds and isolated thunderstorms.

On Monday, Brown spent the heat of the day on horseback, rounding up cattle that had fled the approaching flames after ranchers cut through miles of livestock fence to allow their escape.

During the round-up, the cows — likely including several refugees from neighboring ranches — slowly materialized from the smoky haze as they plodded along.

Three days earlier, the fire had ripped through the property, leaving scorched grasslands, burned buildings and dead cattle in its wake.

The flame front also knocked out power lines as it advanced, leaving well pumps unable to supply water to the effort.

"We were sucking water out of our hired man's swimming pool, and it was dropping fast," he said.

Brown added that locals began arriving with water trucks from hundreds of miles away, while one rancher brought a grader to dig fire line.

"I'll tell you what, all of our neighbors from around Garfield County came here as fast as they could get here," he said. "The only thing that stopped that fire was everybody we know standing in the way of that fire, trying to stop it. It's just humbling."

On Monday, at the rest stop on State Road 200 between Mosby and Sand Springs, Cole Hinnaland took a quick break on his way to Circle, hauling two truckloads of hay across the blackened landscape. Even before the Lodgepole fires blew up last weekend, he said the prolonged drought had already driven up local demand for cattle feed.

“They used to talk about the drought in the ‘80s. This is way drier,” Hinnaland said. “Heck, everywhere people said they needed hay, and that there wasn’t any grass."

He said he’s planning to pick up hay donations on his way back to supply the hard-hit ranchers that have watched their livestock’s dwindling food supply go up in smoke.

Squinting into the evening haze, he gestured in the direction of the scorched lands to the east, and said the situation on his ranch in Brockway isn’t much different.

“It’s just as dry 60 miles away, and we’re just one lightning-strike away from looking like this.”

At the Kozy Korner Cafe in Winnett on Monday afternoon, Krista Rowton stopped for a meal with several friends, discussing how to pull together food donations for the local volunteers involved in the massive firefighting effort.

She had just watched the flames chew through about 80 percent of the Garfield County side of her ranch, which straddles the Musselshell River.

"You see a wall of fire, and it's scary. You feel so small," she said. "The winds could shift anytime, and it would be right there again."

Like others in the close-knit community, she was thankful for the sleepless work of her neighbors and volunteers to stop the fire's dramatic march through the area last weekend.

“The devastation and destruction of that fire is just so heartbreaking,” Rowton said. But, she added, “When you look at the big picture, we are just a small part of the devastation out there. ... To rebuild all that, it's going to take a long time."

The governor was briefed over the weekend by the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and Disaster and Emergency Services at the Department of Military Affairs. He also spoke with Rick Connell, the Incident Commander at the Lodgepole Complex area, which is currently the state’s largest fire.

The declaration allows Bullock to mobilize additional state resources and the Montana National Guard to combat the fires, as well as access money from the state's general fund to meet the contingencies and needs that may arise from them.

Far more than 300,000 acres have already burned across Montana this year, according to the Northern Rockies Coordination Center. Last year, about 113,000 acres burned. During 2012, which fire officials managing the Lodgepole Complex cited as the last comparable year for fire conditions, more than 1.2 million acres burned across Montana.

Montana could struggle to pay for fires this year because the Legislature, after a winter with plenty of snow, voted to tap the roughly $65 million fire fund by up to $30 million to bolster a struggling budget.

Some lawmakers last week expressed worry there would not be enough money in the fund. The Department of Natural Resources said it has spent somewhere between $5 million and $10 million on fires already this summer.

According to the NRCC, total fire costs as of Sunday have hit $1.4 million for the Lodgepole Complex. For major fires across Montana that started by at least mid-July, costs have exceeded $10 million.

— The Gazette's Matt Hoffman contributed to this report.

*Correction: The Lodgepole Complex fires have burned about 250,000 acres as of Tuesday morning according to fire officials. Across the state of Montana, wildfires have burned more than 300,000 acres. An editing error misstated the size of the Lodgepole Complex fires in a previous version of this story. 



Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.