Missouri Breaks landowners question firefighters' efforts

Of The Billings Gazette Staff


Montana - Wildfires near Jordan continued growing Monday, as did local residents' rage at perceived inaction by federal firefighting crews.

The Missouri Breaks Complex fires grew from 13,000 acres to 105,000 acres over the weekend. As the cluster of fires raced toward buildings and livestock, some landowners said they waited in vain for help.

"Nobody in the whole country has seen any firefighters in two days," said Jim Reynolds, who helps manage the Seven W Ranch, 24 miles north of Sand Springs.

Out of the ranch's 55,000 acres, only 15,000 remained unburned Monday morning, Reynolds said. None of the ranch buildings were lost, but nine horses could not be found and at least two cows were killed. The fires were ignited Wednesday by lightning.

"We lost our whole ranch," he said. "We have no idea what we're going to do. It's beyond words. You can't even begin to describe it."

About 50 people from the Brusett area were evacuated from their homes over the weekend, but no homes or businesses have been destroyed. The fire was estimated to be 10 percent contained Monday.

Firefighters say they are doing the best they can. Much of the West is ablaze, and no more resources are available, said Jim Gray, federal fire incident commander. A force of 427 firefighters is battling the four fires in western Garfield County. They were joined Monday by slurry bombers from Billings, Lewistown and Miles City.

Many of the firefighters are exhausted from earlier firefighting duties, Gray said. Federal safety requirements meant Gray had to keep some of his crews off the firelines Saturday and Sunday so they could rest. Not enough supervisors were available either, he said. The firefighters are often college students and they cannot be sent out without an experienced leader, Gray said.

"We'll stretch our resources as far as we can," Gray said. "Rules are designed to keep firefighters alive. I'm not breaking them."

Residents found help from neighbors and friends from miles away. Jim Reynolds' mother, Glenda, said no one in the region has slept for days. Whenever the telephone rang, it often brought news of another neighbor pleading for help. This would send local pickup trucks carrying water tanks racing down endless miles of dirt roads.

Glenda Reynolds said she watched as the county sheriff, his wife and a deputy sheriff responded to a call for help from her neighbor. The group used a weed sprayer on the back of a pickup to save a barn.

"They were backed up to the wall and they stood there facing those flames," she said, her voice cracking with emotion. "The flames were within 60 feet of them, but they saved that place."

Heat reaching 113 degrees and wind gusts topping 40 mph kept the fires fed and kept Reynolds from sleeping for five nights.

Keeping the flames from reaching the buildings was an endless task. Reynolds was furious that no firefighters could help. At one point, a firefighter came to her with tears in his eyes, upset at being ordered back to camp, Reynolds said.

"I have the utmost respect for all these firefighters," she said. "As far as the people managing it, I cannot say what I think about them. The management of this stinks. The locals have saved what has been saved."

Even the local doctor, Dan Muniak, left Jordan to battle the flames.

"I haven't been doctoring," Muniak said. "I've been fighting fire. I have land out there."

Garfield County Sheriff Kelly Pierson and his two deputies have been on the fire line nearly nonstop since Friday. He's been working with county road crews to respond to the most urgent situations. Although the temperatures haven't been dipping much after sunset, the volunteers and county workers try to catch a few hours of sleep in their pickup trucks at night. Some collapse and sleep in the dirt, Pierson said.

"Every structure that's been saved has been saved by local ranchers and local fire crews," he said. "Everybody's kind of running on fumes. People are really upset. Today was first time I saw firefighters."

There's been no serious injuries in the fires, but livestock and wildlife losses could run high. Pierson said he saw two cows burned to death Sunday night.

"We couldn't reach them," he said. "It was pretty bad. I also saw some deer and a coyote with his ears and lips burned off. We tried to kill him but we couldn't because cattle were close."

As the anger surged, so did the rumors. Some residents believe it's all part of a federal plan to let the fires burn and force ranchers off the land. Helen Arthur-Berger thinks the Bureau of Land Management would like to see the area turned into a giant bison preserve, an idea known as the Big Open.

"They're waiting for a chance to do the Big Open and burn out the ranchers," said Arthur-Berger, whose late husband ranched 24 miles north of Sand Springs. "This is infuriating. It could have been stopped by people who are paid to fight fires. That is the travesty. I think it's criminal."

A fire in Western Montana usually has no trouble attracting federal attention, Arthur-Berger said. At the 2,500-acre Wedge Canyon fire in northwest Montana, for example, 319 firefighters are at work. This breaks down to about one person for every eight acres. The vastness of the burning area in Garfield County breaks down to about 146 acres for every firefighter.

Pierson, the sheriff, said he doesn't blame federal officials. They have rules to follow and limited crews and equipment to work with. Even with thousands of firefighters, it would be tough to snuff out the blazes.

"I understand their side of it, too; it's all really unfortunate," he said. "It's so big. There's just not enough resources to go around. There's fire everywhere. You can drive that country for 20, 30 miles at a stretch and never be out of fire."

The BLM never planned to let the fires burn, said Gray, the incident commander. "We don't have a let-it-burn policy. We never have had a let-it-burn policy."

Gray would love to have more crews available to fight the fires, but with dozens of fires burning across the West, this won't happen. He hopes local residents understand that all firefighters want to do is put out fires while staying safe.

"There's huge competition for these resources and we seldom get what we need," Gray said. "We're trying to do as much as we can. ... I can't work people 24 hours a day. I can't meet those expectations."


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