Sand Springs, MT – The massive 270,000 acre Lodgepole Complex fires were still raging at zero percent contained when Barry Francis, a student at MSU-Northern was already on the phone to ranchers at Sand Springs asking where their Collegiate Stockgrowers organization could provide assistance.
“We knew ranch families needed help,” said Francis, “And while others might be able to donate hay, or money, or feed supplies, we thought the best thing that a bunch of Ag college students could offer was our manpower and our hands-on ranching experience.” With hundreds of miles of fence destroyed, those contributions were sorely needed indeed.
Eleven miles west of Sand Springs, the Brown Ranch lay directly in the path of Bridge Coulee Fire as roared out of the Missouri Breaks and tore south across the prairie of western Garfield County. At the point where it jumped Highway 200 the burn is almost 10 miles wide. “The stretch on our ranch where the fire crossed the highway involved about 12 different pastures of various sizes, and we had cattle or horses in most of those”, explained Travis Brown, owner of the LO Bar Cattle Company. “All we could do was open gates and cut fences, and give them a chance to outrun it.” Most livestock survived the flames, but when a fire burns a quarter million acres of fences and gates, those animals scatter far and wide.
Because Highway 200 is a main East-West corridor across Central Montana, public safety was an immediate concern. Consider the summer tourist season…plus black cattle…on the road at night…on a completely blackened landscape…and you can see why the Browns were pretty happy to hear from some volunteers that knew how to build fence. Miles and miles of wooden posts, braces, and gates were gone; plus there were dozens of places where graders, discs, and pumper trucks had torn gaping holes in fences while trying to cut firebreaks.
Within 36 hours, five members of the MSU-Northern Collegiate Stockgrowers converged from all across the state to join other volunteers and ranchers to begin re-fencing Highway 200. Those students included: Barry Francis from Manhattan, Cooper Merrill from Miles City, Michael Peter from Circle, Luke Rech from Big Timber, and Chris Brekke from Bozeman. Using equipment and supplies donated by Pat Hackley of Sidney and Justin Hoffman of Glendive, the team formed a formidable fencing brigade.
“Since only four of our twelve pastures along the highway have any grass left in them, our immediate need was to fence those cattle out of the right-of-way,” explained Brown, “Just like all our neighbors, our interior fences are damaged for many miles back away from the highway, so cattle will be ranging a long ways out on either side until we can get those cross fences up.”
Fortunately the Montana Highway Commission has identified some federal funding that can be used to re-fence the majority of the highway itself, which officials say they plan to accomplish yet this fall. That will be welcomed, but for that part of the fence, Brown says for them there is not so much hurry, because in most of their pastures that border Highway 200 there isn’t any grass left to feed a cow anyway. Instead, “Our pressing need was to get some interior fences repaired, to keep cows back out of those damaged pastures adjacent to the highway”, says Brown, “And I do not know how we could have done it without these guys.”
A disaster like the Lodgepole Fires can bring out unbelievable human generosity, and turn volunteers into heroes. Many other heart-warming stories will emerge, but the contribution of a group of Collegiate Stockgrowers from a campus in Havre will not soon be forgotten along Calf Creek.
MSU-Northern Collegiate Stockgrowers helping local ranchers rebuild highway right-of-way fence destroyed by the Bridge Coulee fire along Highway 200 west of Sand Springs.
Making Highway 200 safe again after the Bridge Coulee Fire
(standing left to right) MSU-Northern Collegiate Stockgrowers members Luke Rech of Big Timber, Barry Francis of Manhattan, and Cooper Merrill of Miles City (kneeling).
Not your average run-of-the-mill Ivy League College Fencing Team….
Pictured above Left to right: MSU-Northern students Cooper Merrill of Miles City, Michael Peter of Circle, Luke Rech of Big Timber; along with Pat Hackley a volunteer from Culbertson, Travis Brown local rancher from Sand Springs, Justin Hoffmann volunteer from Glendive, MSU Northern students Barry Francis of Manhattan and Chris Brekke of Bozeman, and volunteers Bobby Davis of Sidney, and Nathan Hoffman of Glendive.