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Fighting Fire With Fire

July 6, 2012

Backfires, fire guards — and a ton of help from the community — saved this Montana ranch from a wildfire.

Wildfire encroaches on the Dahl Ranch in Roundup, Montana. Credit: Toby Dahl Photography/Top50 Ranches

When a freak bolt of lightning hit  AQHA life members Jody and Toby Dahl’s ranch in Roundup, Montana, June 26, they suddenly went from hearing about wildfires to being in the middle of one.  

Jody runs Top50Ranches.com, a resource for travelers seeking authentic ranch and riding vacations, and as she switched to fire-fighting mode, Mel Rutherford at the London office kept things moving forward with the business.

“The fire started with lightning and quickly spread,” says Jody, who quickly abandoned her desk and, along with her husband, Toby, headed out to try to gain control of the blaze and stop its spread to neighboring land.

Jody had been in nearby Billings when she got a call saying a fire had been spotted on a small area of the ranch.

“We were told not to worry or rush back, as the firetrucks were on it and neighbors had also gathered, so the fire was contained,” she says. Spanning around six acres and located about five miles away from the main office, ranch houses and barnyard, the fire was not a cause for alarm for the team – who had just five days before moved all of their cattle from the affected land and surrounding pastures. “It sounded like everything was OK and we weren’t too worried at that point,” Jody recalls.

Forty-five minutes later, they arrived back at the ranch only to find the fire had picked up speed.

“We pulled up to find it rolling down the hill toward our barnyard. It was crazy,” Jody remembers. “Emotions were certainly raised, but somehow we managed to stay calm and focus on what we had do.”

While Toby jumped in the tractor and headed out to make a fireguard around the north, west and south perimeters, Jody found a safe place for their children at a friend and neighbor’s house just up the road. Meanwhile, friends and neighbors quickly rallied to help move the Dahls’ horses to a safe pasture away from the barnyard. Friends, neighbors – even locals the Dahls didn’t know – soon started calling to offer their help, bringing in trailers to pull out all the animals and helping set fireguards.

“People were so eager to chip in and help out,” says Jody, explaining how a local church brought in food and supplies for the firemen, volunteers and ranchers.

“A huge team of firefighters was trying to contain the fire as it rolled down the hill toward the barn, and we were convinced the fire wouldn’t jump the creek running between the barnyard and our home and offices,” she recalls. “Well, it jumped the creek.”

Embers were thrown more than 200 yards across the other side of the road, where fire touched down and took off – right toward the Dahl family home and offices.

“I just grabbed the nearest shovel and headed up to the hill to try to work with other volunteers to contain it,” Jody says. “Even aged just 11 years, my eldest son, Brigem, was a huge asset – filling up water tanks and buckets to make sure we had water on hand for areas the fire engines hadn’t yet reached.”

But the fire was now firmly out of control, rolling so fast that all the Dahls and their team of volunteers could do was watch.

“There was no stopping or getting in front of it,” Jody says, “all we could do was try to steer it away from our home and offices with fire guards.”

Jody Dahl lights backfires. Credit: Toby Dahl Photography/Top50 Ranches

Fire guards, often used in wildfires, involve pulling up bare dirt around the outside of the blaze to stop its spread. The team then set to work lighting backfires to try to contain the areas of most concern. This technique involves lighting fires within a perimeter of pulled-up dirt, to prevent embers from the main blaze jumping and catching new ground – essentially, forcing the fire to burn back into itself. “That made a big difference,” Jody says.

Jody was back dealing with Top50 Ranches affairs just two days later. Backfires lit and the fire safely contained – although still burning – mop-up crews and helicopters and planes with fire retardant were sent in to put out the fires completely and help contain any new flare-ups.

“We lost 4,000 of our total 18,000 acres to the fire – the timber loss has yet to be determined,” Jody says. “The grass is gone and will require a few years of care to re-establish, so our stocking rates will go down for the next few years, drastically reducing the number of cattle we can run on the ranch.”

This impacts the revenue generated by the ranch – an added blow amidst a recession in what is already a tough industry. But compared to some others, the Dahls got off lightly.

“Another nearby rancher lost 2,500 acres of cattle-grazing land, leaving him with only 300 grazing acres,” Jody says. “It’s going to leave them in a real bind this year.”

Having lost around 12 miles of fencing to the fire, the Dahls will be spending at least a year building new fence along the affected pastures. “But for all the land that was destroyed, nothing is as devastating as it for those who lost their homes,” she says. While the fire caused widespread destruction on the Dahl ranch, it didn’t stop there, spreading to neighboring ranches where it took down more than 70 structures along the way.

“There was no rhyme or reason for what houses it took and which ones it left in its path. We are so saddened for all those who lost their homes and everything they had. Top50 is currently working on ways to help those affected by the devastation.”

One means by which the Dahls are looking to give to affected locals is through the burnt trees that will soon be falling on their ranch, some of which can be used as winter firewood. Others will be milled to create beautiful “blued” lumber. Jody explains: “When our ponderosa pine trees burn, it creates a beautiful ‘blueing’ effect to the lumber, which can be used for building indoor and outdoor furniture.”

And, although it’s hard to see sometimes, there is a silver lining.

“ ‘What’s hard on people, is good for the land’ – that’s really a difficult thing to swallow,” Jody says. While the fire caused mass devastation to so many in the area, just as the widespread wildfires continue to do farther south in Colorado, such a blaze is actually a blessing for the land and its ecosystem.

“We actually periodically light contained fires ourselves that measure five or six acres, to encourage regeneration of grass and trees. It’s so good for the land to cleanse itself this way – getting rid of ‘duff’ undertrees that prevent healthy grasses growing and allowing new, fresh growth to occur,” she explains. “In two years, the areas of the land that burned will be so lush and beautiful. It’s just a shame that it has to be so tough on individuals.”