Floods, fire ... are locusts next?

  • Wendy Beye

 

There must be a fellow named Job living in Roundup, Mont. That would explain the latest punch to the belly of this small rural community.

The first punch occurred a year ago this May, when deputies drove through neighborhoods along the Musselshell River, rousting people out of their beds for immediate evacuation.  Rain had fallen for days, high-country snow was melting like ice cubes in a hot frying pan, and upstream river flow gages were transmitting unbelievably high readings. The high water lasted for a month, submerging nearly one-quarter of the town of Roundup, population 1,800, and washing away roads, bridges, sheep, cows, fences, irrigation equipment and vehicles. The flooding also did considerable damage to the sense of security enjoyed by generations of families.

Cut off from outside help by highways awash with floodwaters, residents mounted a homegrown recovery effort, and recently, on the one-year anniversary of the flood, everybody celebrated their survival.  But just a month later, a natural disaster struck again -- this time in the form of wildfire.

The Dahl Fire began at noon with a wisp of smoke rising from a draw 10 miles southwest of town.  Dahl Ranch owners reported the lightning-sparked fire and fought hard to beat back the growing flames.  No go. Volunteer firefighters who rushed to the scene took one look at the blaze, knew it was already too big, and quickly mobilized to drive hundreds of miles of back roads to warn residents to evacuate. Nobody had time to collect keepsakes or livestock; the inferno was advancing on whipping afternoon winds at the rate of three or four miles per hour.  By evening, the fire had reached the highway connecting Roundup to Billings, closing it.  More than 15,000 acres were blackened, and at least 60 homes were reduced to ashes.

Local fire crews, ill-equipped to deal with a major wildfire, called in a Type 1 Fire Team of air tankers, helicopters, dozers and hotshot crews.  In the meantime, volunteer members of the Musselshell County Recovery Team pulled together again to help their neighbors. An evacuation center was set up the first night, and local church members patched together three meals a day for evacuees and firefighters. Donations of food, clothing and money poured in from people with little to give, who nevertheless generously shared.

While hundreds of firefighters doggedly worked to stop the fire, the Recovery Team developed a plan to distribute food, clothing and financial assistance to displaced families.  Available assistance from state and federal programs for individual homeowners, many of whom were uninsured, is limited.  Ranchers devastated by the flood qualified for several resource conservation cost-sharing programs, but no such programs are available for loss of fences, pasture, hay, and livestock due to fire on private land.

After last year’s flood, the Recovery Team recognized that people who have lost almost everything aren’t just in need of the basics; they also need counseling for emotional trauma as well as information that will help them make decisions about what to do next. Volunteers who helped after the flooding were called out again to support fire victims, with some getting additional training tailored to the aftermath of fire.

Many of the families whose homes were reduced to ashes were angry -- angry at the first responders who couldn't put out the fire, angry that their horses, cows, sheep and llamas had to be left behind to suffer a horrifying death, angry at the Fire Team that put a halt to residents' risky efforts to build their own firelines, angry that there will be no government assistance available to help rebuild their homes.  The healing process, as it’s called, is likely to take a long time.

The final losses from the Dahl Fire were tallied at 22,045 acres burned, with 223 structures destroyed, including 74 homes.  This may not sound like much when compared to the hundreds of homes lost to wildfires in Colorado and New Mexico, but the 2010 census lists a total of only 2,046 households in all of Musselshell County.  Between the flood of 2011 and this year's fire, nearly 10 percent of the homes in the county have been damaged or destroyed -- a huge economic blow to the community.

Life in rural America has always been tough.  Homesteaders had to deal with fire, drought, floods, insect invasions, disease and crop losses.  Some families stubbornly persisted, just as folks are doing today in Roundup.  Neighbor helping neighbor is a powerful antidote to disaster, but a lot of people are probably praying that next year the locusts don't swarm through.

Wendy Beye is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. She is a freelance writer living in Roundup, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST
    9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.
  • HIRING BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER DIRECTOR
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • ARIZONA PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    Title: Public Lands Organizer About the Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) The AWF is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • MS ACCESS DATABASE PROGRAMER
    Looking for an access programmer. Contract position. Send resume with references and rates to: [email protected] www.prospace.biz
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.
  • ROADS END CABIN NEAR YELLOWSTONE
    Vaulted ceilings, two fireplaces, two bedrooms, loft, jetted tub, wifi. Forest, mountain views. Wildlife. [email protected]
  • ACCOUNTING CLERK
    Our director is seeking to employ the services of an Accounting Clerk to assist with various accounting and administrative tasks. This is a great opportunity...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, COMMUNITY RADIO PROJECT
    Community Radio Project, Cortez, CO (KSJD & the Sunflower Theatre). Visit ksjd.org and click on the Executive Director search link. CRP is an EOE.