Rural America: Where there’s smoke, there’s fire — and a neighbor ready to help.

Montana is acres away from setting a new record for the number of acres burned in a single year. Over 1 million acres has already been scorched and we are fast approaching the record set in 2012 of 1,497,972 acres burned. ** I should note that I have seen various acreages attached to 2012 – including the above number from the Great Falls Tribune and 1.1 million from the article linked below from the Billings Gazette. I am not sure what the official number is however it’s not super important. It’s an insane number of acres.

It’s a dubious distinction really, especially when you consider that when we broke the record in 2012 it marked the worst fire year since 1910. The fires this year have cost local, state and federal resources an estimated $200-300 million and climbing by the minute, but the true toll of these fires will likely be impossible to quantify.

In an attempt to paint a picture of the damage I wrote the following on a Facebook post recently: “. . . however they have cost millions for suppression efforts, firefighters have died trying to protect our citizens and land, wildlife and livestock alike have perished trying to flee advancing flames – and an unknown number have been left wounded and sadly suffering, ranchers have lost hundreds of thousands of acres of grazing lands – many have been forced to downsize or entirely liquidate their herds, historic landmarks have been engulfed by advancing flames, Glacier National Park is now nearly deserted due to evacuations, outfitters have lost a year or more worth of income as fires have destroyed their leases and pushed animals far from their homes, areas that depends on tourism have been decimated and left nearly deserted, families have lost their homes and the air quality has been hazardous across the state for weeks on end with no end in sight ….. the list of impacts to our citizens goes on forever ….”

While I think it is important to paint a true picture of the devastation Montana has face this wildfire season I really want to paint the picture of fire fighting in rural areas. According to the National Fire Protection Association roughly 70% of firefighters in the United States are volunteers. The same is true in our small town. Our firefighters (including my husband who is the volunteer fire chief) dedicate hours of their time to training, fire calls, and maintenance required by our collection of aging brush, tender and structure trucks. It does not matter when a fire starts, these volunteers jump out of bed in the middle of the night, drop everything in the middle of harvest, or leave their families in the middle of a birthday celebration to answer a fire call.

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These volunteers are almost always assisted by a large contingency of farmers, ranchers, and neighbors in the area. The type that also drop everything the minute smoke rises into the air or the second a neighbor calls with a frantic phone call. Over the years I have lost track of how many fires we have gone to, how many times we have abandoned everything in the field to run to the nearest water truck and/or our tractor and disk.

Today for example one of the large transfer power lines that transfers electricity from the coal mines in Eastern Montana to cities along with West Coast arced and sparked a small grass fire. Within minutes of it starting we had our tractor and disk, another tractor with our road blade, and our water truck on scene, this was followed closely by two neighbors with their water tanks, the county road grader, another tractor and disk, two large water tenders, and three brush trucks from the Volunteer Fire Department. All in a matter of minutes. This scene plays out over and over again across our landscape as neighbors drop everything to help another neighbor when fires spark.

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For whatever reason whenever we have a fire and get it stopped before too much damage has been done I always think:

“Not bad for a bunch of farmers with pitch forks . . .”

I’m not sure the reason since none of us actually have pitchforks – but the sight of neighbors walking the fire lines with shovels and chunks of rubber attached to broom handles always makes me think that. There are few things about fires that make you feel good but one of the most heartwarming is to see the number of neighbors and friends that are willing to drop everything and lend a hand. It makes you appreciate community spirit and rural living because we know we live in an area with limited emergency services – but we also know we can count on our neighbors when we need them.

** We can also count on our county emergency services coordinators, mutual aid agreements between neighboring fire departments, the Montana DNRC, BLM, and forest service resources when necessary.

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