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Floods, fire ... are locusts next?


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].