Madison County steps up to help fire-stricken eastern Montana
“I feel so bad for those people,” said Rick Sandru, as a truck loaded with 34 hay bales sat rumbling and ready to go. “I wish there was more we could to do help.”
Sandru owns and operates a ranch in the Ruby Valley and is just one of many local ranchers who have donated hay to those suffering from fires in eastern Montana. The Lodgepole Complex Fire, burning north of Billings in Garfield County, was at 270,723 acres as of July 31 and 93 percent containment. The fire, which sparked on July 19 of unknown causes, has close to 600 personnel working to control the blaze and holds the current title for the largest fire in the nation.
Burning through core sage grouse habitat, pine trees and dead and down debris, the fire has scorched much of the agricultural landscape, leaving people without feed for livestock. In an effort to help, many families and individuals in the Ruby and Madison valleys are stepping up.
“I grew up on a ranch and in a ranching family and everyone in the agricultural world is always supportive of each other,” said Mike Buyan.
Buyan, originally from Sheridan, works as a pilot based out of western Alaska and started a Go Fund Me webpage to help out those in need.
“Nick (Clark) had some hives in Jordan and was over to save their bees and he called me and said, ‘these ranchers are going to need hay’,” said Buyan.
The Clark family, from Sheridan, owns a honey operation and has hives around the state, including in the Jordan area, and were busy trucking bees out of the fire’s path.
“The ranchers give us so much with letting us keep bees on their land and I just wanted to find a way to give something back to them,” said Clark. “I just put a post on Facebook saying we need to help these families, (Buyan) saw it, and it kind of blew up.”
Clark said they lost a couple hives to the fire but nothing compared to what the ranchers lost.
“Some lost 80 to 100 percent of their grass and feed and I saw it first hand,” he said. “I saw disappointed faces and scrambling and thought there had to be something I could do to help.”
Buyan said the motivation behind the Go Fund Me page was to find a way to help ranchers in need, either through donated hay or money.
“When we started organizing this, I never dreamed of all the support we would get,” said Buyan.
Thanks to social media and word of mouth in the community, the Go Fund Me page has been shared over 300 times and raised over $5,000. Aside from donated hay from local ranches and monetary donations, companies and community members have donated fuel and supplies for fencing.
“It’s neighbor helping neighbor,” said Buyan. “Even though we live in a big state, we’re all close neighbors.”
Helping mastermind the efforts are Buyan’s older brother, Marcus, who has been the dispatcher for where and when to haul loads, cousin, Joel, who has given up work time to truck loads back and forth to eastern Montana, and Clark’s brother, Justin, who went door to door to showcase the damage and ask the community for help.
And of course, all those who have donated.
“We kind of got the ball running organizing everything but so many people have stepped up and helped us out,” said Buyan.
For Jeffers rancher Kevin Boltz, who was the first to send donated hay from the Madison Valley with the help of Opie Reints and Reints Trucking, eastern Montana’s plight hits home.
“You got to do something,” Boltz said. “This is how I could help.”
As of Aug. 1, 13 loads of hay had left the Madison and Ruby valleys, but Buyan said 21 loads were signed up to go.
“We need to find ranches that need the hay but we have 21 loads total so far,” he said. “I’m sure we can find homes for all of it.”
After his first haul, Joel said he was welcomed in the east as folks lined the highway.
“They must have heard that we were coming because at least 30 people were standing along the highway, waving as we went by,” he said.
Buyan said all the money raised will go toward fuel to haul hay or fencing supplies for folks affected by the fire and looking to rebuild.
“It’s their livelihood that could fade away without the supplies they need in the coming days,” he said.
Fire season at home
On July 24, Governor Steve Bullock signed an executive order declaring a fire emergency in the state because of hot temperatures, drought conditions and fire activity.
While there are currently no fires burning in Madison County, there are two fires on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. The Meyers and Whetstone Ridge fires are both burning in Granite County, currently at 1,020 acres and 2,340 acres, respectively.
According to Leona Rodreick, public affairs officer for the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, there are no fire restrictions on the forest.
“Right now we are seeing conditions that we typically have mid to late August,” she said. “So, we are asking people to be very careful with fire – that means extinguishing campfires completely and make sure they are cold to the touch before leaving. Stay on designated roads and trails, those catalytic converters on vehicles can be very hot and easily set off a fire if driving off roads. Also, if people smoke, make sure their cigarettes are out and don’t flick them out the window.”