A John Deere Publication
Man riding horse
Agriculture, Livestock   December 01, 2020

Farm Phoenix

Finding the good in recovering from a devastating fire.

They made their stand. Back burning from a county road intersection, the cluster of ranchers were confident they were going to put a stop to the tree and prairie fire that had raged for 2 days already.

Among them was Travis Brown. Waiting on the ridge just a few miles from his ranch headquarters he was weary from battling the range-devouring blaze.

Almost no rain had fallen that year. So when 11 dry lightening strikes hit in late July, Sand Springs, Mont., residents knew their sparse rural community — the third least populated county in the lower 48 — was in for it.

Whipped to a frenzy by hot winds despite being morning, the fire roared past the back burn and pumpers, over the road and sprinted toward Brown’s house.

“It was impossible. Everything was bone dry. Even a tiny ember would start a new fire,” he says.

A few hours later, the fire jumped the highway in a 10-mile swath and raged on to burn better than half of Brown’s 65,000-plus acre ranch in the span of a day.

“They saved our houses and barns. Reservoirs were dry and stock tanks couldn’t keep up. They pumped out the kids’ swimming pool to save the barn,” Brown says.

What’s next. With armies of professional firefighters descending on the scene, Brown and the other ranchers were freed up to start figuring out what to do. A daunting task to be certain.

“I remember thinking, ‘Just do the next thing,’” Brown says. Find a place to put the horses. Locate the cows. An electric highway sign just outside of the handful of buildings comprising Sand Springs read “Cattle At Large Next 50 Miles.” they could have added, “In Any Direction.”

The Lodgepole Complex Fire, the nation’s biggest fire of 2017, burned 270,000 acres — 422 square miles. Hundreds of miles of wooden post fences put in by homesteaders were decimated.

“When they put those in I bet they thought they’d last 100 years, and they almost did,” Brown says. Rebuilding lost infrastructure was one of the first steps. Volunteers and donated materials came pouring in. Metal (fire resistant) oilfield pipe was used for new brace posts.

“There’s been a lot of advances in fencing. We got to be a lot smarter about where we placed the wires,” Brown says. Wires on new fences were positioned so antelope can go under, elk over and the cows stay in. Plus, 8 miles had visibility tags added to protect sage grouse.

“The scariest thing for me after the fire was the blowing and drifting soil. We had to do something to keep it in place.

Sow smart. Sue Fitzgerald, NRCS district conservationist helped Brown navigate recovery. While many simply deferred grazing on the charred acres letting the plant community recover on its own, Brown and others opted to try fall seeding some acres.

“We targeted areas we thought had potential to dramatically improve, such as areas that had heavy sagebrush,” he says. There they used a no-till drill to seed a mix of grasses and forbs to help hold the soil and improve forage production in the future.

Brown used a self-fashioned ATV-mounted spreader to navigate steep slopes to seed grass in burned pine trees stands. Needle litter burned hot, making the area likely slow to recover. The work paid off. Two subsequent wet years had perennial grasses growing shirt-pocket high in treed areas. “If you’re going to have a fire, the best thing you can do is order up two wet years to follow,” Brown laughs on his success.

There was no dust at branding this spring despite corralling cattle on land that burned. Deferring grazing until the next November resulted in a nice, healthy sod. Fitzgerald notes a positive change in plant community. “Taller plants with deeper roots survived better,” she says. There’s more highly productive western wheatgrass, green needlegrass and bluebunch wheatgrass.

“Our soil health and plant community is much improved,” Travis says. He’d even consider doing some controlled burning one day. Just not anytime soon, and certainly not in late July, he says.

Man standing by fence, fence posts, metal fence collage

Travis Brown and others picked up miles of 100-year-old burnt posts and wire, replacing them with all metal.

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