When flames jumped Camas Creek and swept toward a farmhouse south of Dubois early Saturday, local ranchers Colby and MaCoy Ward carried a hose into the burning grassland to help save the structure.
The brothers are among about 15 farmers and ranchers who have received firefighting training as participants in the three-year-old Camas Creek Rural Fire Protection Association, which played a key role in protecting livestock and property from the 162-square-mile Grassy Ridge Fire.
The lighting-caused fire, which was reported at 3 p.m. Thursday, was 88 percent contained by Monday evening, with full containment expected within another day and a half. Officials say it has burned critical sage grouse habitat and elk winter range 15 miles northwest of St. Anthony, near Red Road. It’s also claimed at least 35 to 40 cows, and forced the evacuation of 2,500 to 3,000 grazing cattle. Officials say no structures are known to have been lost.
Colby Ward and MaCoy Ward, who also is a Clark County Commissioner, were aboard a Clark County brush truck when the home was in peril. Colby Ward said a helicopter and another brush truck also doused flames, and crews from several departments conducted controlled burns in anticipation of the wildfire’s arrival.
“The wind was blowing hard out of the south. That’s what made it jump the creek,” Colby Ward said. “We hit it direct and cut it off.”
Colby Ward said Camas Creek RFPA members also helped the Hamer Volunteer Fire Department save a home in that jurisdiction.
Historically, officials have forced farmers and ranchers seeking to protect their land – or neighbors’ property – to leave fire scenes for liability reasons, explained Richard Savage, a Dubois rancher who is the RFPA’s chairman. Savage said his members have trained alongside Bureau of Land Management fire crews and work closely with surrounding fire entities for the right to participate in local responses.
“They know the country. They know all of the contacts, and they help get people to the right spot,” said Joel Gosswiller, a BLM fire information officer, adding the RFPA was essential in coordinating with ranchers about cattle evacuations.
The RFPA also has a small inventory of equipment, including a brush truck, though many members chose to bring their own farm tractors and water trucks to the recent blaze, which was the first large fire they’ve fought.
“I had one young man who I think slept three hours in three days,” Savage said. “We have a long list of improvements we’re going to have to make. Having said that, I’m just amazed at the work the guys did.”
Savage said a rancher along Camas Creek had about 350 head of cattle in a pasture in the path of the wildfire. Initially, Savage said the rancher feared he’d lost all of the livestock, but he’s since confirmed 35 to 40 head were killed, including animals he had to euthanize because of severe burns. Savage said no other livestock deaths have been confirmed.
Savage said BLM crews spotted about 20 cattle trapped in an “island of vegetation” among flames Sunday night.
A temporary flight restriction was amended to allow three ranchers with aircraft to search for missing cattle from 5:30 a.m. to 8 a.m. on Monday, said Norm Rooker, information officer with the federal Great Basin Incident Management Team No. 3, which dispatched a crew of 38 to the fire.
Rooker said fuel loads in the burn area are between 200 and 400 percent of normal due to a wet season about two years ago. Rooker said crews have been working to save islands of intact vegetation within the burn area to aid in reseeding.
Rooker said the BLM typically waits at least three seasons after fire before renewing cattle grazing, and Savage anticipates finding alternative forage will be a significant challenge for area ranchers.
Savage said the BLM has been seeking unused grazing allotments elsewhere for ranchers in need of new ground.
RFPA member Caleb Munns, a Dubois rancher with Riverbend Ranch, said his employer had to move 400 cow-calf pairs out of harm’s way, and many have been shipped to another allotment near Kilgore. In the heat of the fire, Munns said responders cut fence wire to allow cattle to escape, and livestock from several ranches were intermingled. He spent much of Sunday tracing the origin of livestock with differing brands.
Munns manned the RFPA’s brush truck with two other ranchers, spraying a fire line along a wall of flames he said moved at 11 mph at times on Saturday evening. Munns said the ranchers’ knowledge of local terrain proved invaluable to the professional fire crews. He and his peers convinced the BLM to relocate some “top-heavy” fire trucks that were ill-equipped for severe topography.
“I knew that terrain because we run cows there,” Munns said.
Savage said the RFPA also played a significant role in preventing any structural losses when Dubois was evacuated from Saturday evening to Sunday morning.
“It was a tremendous outpouring of support from all around the region that kept it from being a bigger tragedy,” Savage said.
The USDA’s U.S. Sheep Experiment Station in Dubois also was unharmed by the fire, said the facility’s director, Bret Taylor. Taylor’s facility has researched the effects of fire on grazing land for decades. He said most terrain in the burn area seemed to be in good condition. Based on past research, Taylor said it should recover well and produce an even higher quantity of forage in the next few years.
“Through proper post-fire management sage grouse habitat should recover well,” Taylor added.