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'A Wall Of Black': Montana Ranchers React to Nation's Largest Wildfire

An abandoned school house saved from the Lodgepole Complex of fires in eastern Montana.
Nate Hegyi / YPR

The Lodgepole Complex of fires has burned more than a quarter-million acres of rangeland in eastern Montana. Hundreds of firefighters came from 34 states to battle the blaze. While it’s now almost fully contained, ranchers who live here are left with a landscape of scorched grass and scattered cattle.

“It was definitely devastating," says rancher Tim Browning. "As far as spreading fire it was the damnedest thing you’ve ever seen.”

Browning is leaning on his pickup truck in a field full of alfalfa near Winnett.

It’s lush and green, but everything around him is black and charred. He says his cattle are scattered across the range and some are probably dead. Tonight he and his family will ride out to find them, traveling through black smoke and past dead cottonwood trees that exploded as the fire swept through.

Browning's wife, Sarah, remembers the fire racing towards their house.

“It was just a wall of black came at us," she says. "It covered us.  It was daylight out and it just turned black, you couldn’t see right in front of you. And when it started lifting, within a matter of two minutes, the whole valley was on fire.”

Tim and Sarah Browning on their ranch near Winnett, Montana
Tim and Sarah Browning on their ranch near Winnett, Montana

More than 100 people lost grazing land to the Lodgepole Complex of fires as it scorched an area the size of New York City.

And when a wildfire gets this big, various state and federal agencies are called up to fight it. They’re known as incident management teams. They are organized like military units and they attack a fire like they’re going to war. But it took them three days to get to the Lodgepole Complex of fires, and when they did, they proceeded cautiously.

And this frustrated some ranchers like Matt Bliss, who lost most of his rangeland near Sand Springs to the blaze:

“Firefighters need to just go," he says. "It is so ridiculous that you have to have so many people involved in the process to get the fire crews up to the fire to fight it, it’s just… it’s sad that we lost so many acres of prime… you know…”

And at that moment he catches his breath, his eyes water a little and he looks off at the low, black haze stretching across the horizon.

These ranchers are running on very little sleep. They’re tired, frustrated, and heartbroken.

They’ve been fighting this fire for more than a week.

“We came home, we’ve got about two hours of sleep every night," says Jodie Pearson, a rancher from Jordan and volunteer firefighter.

She’s sitting at her dining room table while her husband, who also helped fight the fires, is outside working his way through a packet of Marlboros.

Pearson understands her neighbors’ frustration.

“But I think part of the deal is they have rules they have to follow and we as ranchers and landowners, we don’t have a protocol so we have a lot more at stake than they do," she says.

Rick Connell, the incident commander, says he feels for ranchers who lost their land, and he understands folks get frustrated when resources don’t show up as soon as a fire explodes

“But, you know, we are in Montana where it’s a long drive to get a lot of stuff and if you’re going out of state it’s even farther. It’s two or three days before stuff gets here," he says.   

Montana has more wildfires burning in it right now than any other state and both firefighters and resources are stretched thin. But when Connell and his team showed up, they hit the fire hard.

Mark See credits them with saving his ranch near the Musselshell River.

“We were fighting it ourselves, when all of a sudden, I’d say 100 people, 20 trucks, they came in and they kept the fire from wiping out this ranch," he says.

Rancher Tim Browning says this kind of firefighting only happens in America. 

“Big bombers coming in and putting fires out and crews from all over the nation or the world or wherever they came from," he says. "Say ‘Only in America,’ that’s all you can say.”

The number of cattle lost to this fire is still unknown, but ranchers say they are receiving hay donations from friends and neighbors as well as coolers full of bottled water and Gatorade.

And, after initially denying Montana’s request for disaster funding, FEMA now says it will reimburse up to 75 percent of the state’s expenses the Lodgepole Complex of fires, which is now 80 percent contained.

There are 19 other wildfires burning in western Montana.