The fire crews, engines and slurry bombers are long gone, and the smoke has cleared on the 102,383-acre Dunn Mountain wildfire 30 miles northeast of Billings. Rain at the end of the fire started new grasses and turned much of the area green.
But the work is not done.
For the past week, graders and heavy equipment have been used to repair damage caused by firefighting efforts. Four graders and a feller buncher, a machine usually used to log trees, have been leveling berms on fire lines, roughing up packed dirt and installing water bars to reduce erosion.
Later in October, helicopters will reseed burned areas to reduce weeds and encourage new grasses in the spring.
The rehabilitation work is an important component in the overall strategy of fighting wildfires, said Ray Beck of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. Beck and another DNRC official have been in the field overseeing the rehab work.
"What we do is help protect the resource," Beck said. "We come in and put it back as best we can."
DNRC works with local conservation districts and landowners to repair damage, which not only means erasing fire lines where they are unwanted and reseeding to prevent erosion and reduce weeds, but also fixing fences that may have been cut or damaged by equipment.
The efforts also go a long way toward healing any hard feelings that may have flared during the stress of a fire.
"We work directly with landowners," Beck said. Some landowners want berms smoothed out and some don't, while some may want to use fire lines for roads.
"It's very successful when we're done. We don't want the landowner to come out here and see this every day," Beck said, pointing to fire lines crisscrossing the terrain. "It's very stressful for the landowner."
The Dunn Mountain fire was sparked by lightning Aug. 22 and burned for about 10 days before rains helped a firefighting team of 94 contain it.
The fire burned a vast area that includes pasture and plains and rough terrain of steep hills and drainages. Most of the land is private ranchland with some state and federal parcels. About 50 landowners had their land burned. A few structures were lost, but suppression efforts saved 12 structures. Landowners lost hay and grazing land.
Firefighting efforts cost an estimated $2.8 million, and the rehab work is expected to cost about $135,000, Beck said.
The fire will be remembered for its hot burns and high winds that kept pushing flames past fire lines.
There are an estimated 120 miles of fire lines.
"One hundred and twenty miles is a lot for a fire this size," Beck said. "This fire was half the size of the Derby fire but has the same amount of dozer line or
more." The 2006 Derby fire south of Big Timber burned 207,000 acres and destroyed more than 20 homes and outbuildings.
Earlier this week, two graders and the buncher worked on fire lines on a ranch owned by Steve and Jeanne Charter, while two other graders were in the southern end of the fire.
The Charters "have a tremendous amount of line on their property," Beck said "They got burnt pretty bad."
Beck, who grew up on a ranch south of Lewistown and has years of firefighting experience, spent several days this week overseeing the rehab work and talking to landowners. It's a 12-hour-a-day job that began Sept. 18, including weekends, and may be completed by this weekend.
"We're moving by seven o'clock," Beck said. They quit at dark, review the day's progress and make plans for the next day.
The equipment operators maneuver big blades and rakes with ease and finesse.
"I've been working on fires for 25 years now," said Guy Martin, of Stillwater Excavators, during a brief break from his grader. "This one has a lot of line - a lot of line," he said. "We probably cover four or five miles a day. When it's rough terrain, it slows you down."
Before working the Dunn Mountain fire, Martin was doing rehab work on the Cascade fire near Red Lodge. Martin also works the front end of fires, driving bulldozers and installing fire lines.
"I put them in, too," he joked.
In another area of the Charter ranch, Tim Creighton, owner of Creighton Logging, of Kalispell, was using his buncher to make a water bar on a steep road in a drainage where the ground was still black and the ponderosa pines had burned. Water bars divert water to reduce erosion.
When he's not logging, Creighton attaches a large rake to the buncher so he can do fire rehab and dirt work.
DNRC doesn't usually get equipment like the buncher for work in Eastern Montana, but Creighton already was in the area working on the Cascade fire, Beck said. The buncher moves on tracks and can tackle slopes as steep as 70 percent.
Going uphill is fine, Creighton said. "Going down is the scary part."
Scary or not, Creighton obliterated a line that ran up Dunn Mountain.
"It did quite a job," said Jeanne Charter, who was impressed with what she called the "claw" and the grader work.
"They really did correct this. They were really conscientious about it," she said. "They found every one of those fire guards and worked on them. We're really heartened by what they could do with the berms."
The Dunn Mountain fire burned about half of the Charters' ranch, including about 75 percent of their summer and fall pasture.
Fire is not new to the Charters, whose entire ranch burned two decades ago in the Hawk Creek fire. Snags and dead fall from the Hawk Creek fire and high winds made the Dunn Mountain fire difficult to stop, Charter said.
In addition to losing pasture land, the Charters, who graze cattle intensively in small units with electric fences, had about 30 cuts in their fences for fire lines. The Charters will repair the fences, and the DNRC will reimburse them for their labor, "which is wonderful," Charter said.
The DNRC's rehab program was not available after the Hawk Creek fire.
"We've always been kind of stuck with the after effects and we're fire prone," Charter said. "To have a program at the state level that really sticks with people as best they can is as important as the firefighting. It's an important conservation program. We couldn't have asked more of the state in being conscientious."
As a morale booster, it "makes all the difference in the world," she said.