GREAT FALLS, Mont. — Alaina Browning’s pickup truck slowly rumbles down the dirt road to her home at the convergence of the Musselshell River and Calf Creek.
Progress is slow because the innumerable amount of trucks and traffic that have traveled the normally lazy road have churned up sharp rocks and dug sand pits deep enough to bottom out low-riding cars.
Then she hits the brakes.
Out of the passenger window, she sees three rebellious cows she thought she lost in the fire.
“Out of the ashes, girls,” Alaina said. “You made it.”
Alaina is calm and matter-of-fact as she cruises the dusty road. It’s hard to imagine that less than a week earlier, she and her husband Travis were racing through walls of flames down the same path to make sure their daughters and home weren’t taken by the 270,200-acre Lodgepole Complex Fire.
“Travis was sent to the Square Butte Fire and then to the South Breaks Fire (two of the fires in what has been called the Lodgepole Complex),” Alaina said. “I was with him to provide support from our fuel truck. We heard radio traffic saying a local was injured at Calf Creek, and they were being taken by ambulance. We didn’t know if it was one of our kids.”
The Brownings have six daughters: Tristany, Tierany, Tory, Tylee, Tawny and Tinley and a 17-month-old grandson named Reid. All but Tristany were at the house as the flames poured over ridges and toward the Browning Ranch.
Alaina said she climbed to the top of Square Butte to get cell reception, but the smoke was so thick that she couldn’t get a signal.
After radio chatter reported incoming high winds, Alaina and Travis jumped into the fuel truck and raced to their ranch.
Fire climbed the ponderosa and pines beside the road; the grass and sage brush were blazing. Flames jumped across road and around the fuel truck.
“There were flames and embers shooting over the hill,” Alaina said. “It only took the fire three minutes to get from one ridge to another. There were fire tornados. The fire was so hot, it was making its own lightning…The word I kept thinking was ‘Armageddon.’ There was black and fire everywhere.”
Travis said it sounded like a freight train. Their home was being closed in on by the Barker and Bridge Coulee portions of the fire complex.
As they drove, Alaina said they eventually received word that the ambulance was actually sent to their neighbor’s house. It was only a small relief. The call was for the mother of Tinley’s best friend and the only other child to attend the one-room Old Ross School house.
Alaina said her daughters all know about fire. They knew when they saw lightning striking all around that they needed to be on alert.
“We were moving cows, and we got into the bottoms and there were flames coming over the ridge,” Tory said. “We rode over to the neighbor’s house. It was scary.”
Tinley said she was at the house when it all started.
“It was really scary because you saw a few flames, and then it was all there,” Tinley said. “It was really fast like it was smoke and then it was fire.”
When Travis and Alaina arrived at the house, it was still standing and the girls and grandson were spooked but OK.
The Brownings are no stangers to fire. Given Travis’ line of work, their house and property were as prepared as it could have been for such an event.
“There hasn’t been a big fire out here in a long period of time,” Alaina said. “We had mitigating crews come in for years and space out the trees and clearing brush. Other people didn’t want their properties mitigated. They moved out here for all of the trees, so they wanted to keep them. Those buildings were just a recipe for disaster.”
Crews from the fire camp report 16 total structures were lost during the fire. These structures refer to primary residences and secondary residences, simply meaning that people could be living in them at any time.
Luckily, Alaina said the destroyed structures she’s aware of were largely seasonal homes and hunting cabins. Though she couldn’t say with certainty, she believed only one person lost their primary home, but they had a secondary home they could move into.
Alaina said there are things that should be done in those parts to help fend off fire, but some things are out of one’s control.
“There’s not one single thing that you could do to keep this from happening,” Alaina said. “It’s just a natural thing that happens now and then.”
The Brownings designed their home to sit inside a large perimeter of gravel, and there are no trees near any of the buildings. They believe that’s part of what saved them.
After arriving at their home and getting the all-clear from their daughters, they set out into the smoke. They had a fire to fight.
Travis was immediately back out creating dozer lines to stop the spread of the flames. Even the older Browning daughters were doing what they could to help out.
For those first few days, the Brownings hardly slept. It was only when the Bureau of Land Managment arrived that she said she could lie down and get two hours of sleep.
“The BLM crew stood outside my house and kept watch for spot fires,” Alaina said. “I have so much gratitude for them.”
The fire blazed across the Brownings’ property on a Thursday evening. By the next day, it had jumped across Highway 200 just under 20 miles away.
“It was huge and very quick,” Alaina said.
On Wednesday, July 26, Alaina drove out to Highway 200 to collect donations from a Red Cross volunteer to bring back to the house. It was the only the second time Alaina has been able to leave the house.
She and her daughters have been busy at home answering phone calls, rounding up cattle and making hundreds of sandwiches for the firefighters. They’re taking good care of the people who showed up to help them.
“I’ve heard some of the guys saying this is the best fire they’ve ever worked,” Travis said.
The reigning feeling around Garfield and Petroleum counties and from the crews who traveled from across the nation is that the credit for getting the fire under control goes to the locals.
East of the Brownings in the heart of the Barker Fire portion of the complex, Matt Bliss is grateful for the support he received while fighting the fire on his and his neighbor’s land, but he hopes there are lessons that can be learned for the future.
“They were too late,” Bliss said. “The Type II team came in too late.”
After 11 separate fires were sparked by lightning on the evening of Wednesday, July 19, locals were able to extinguish seven. The remaining fires grew beyond the means of the ranchers and volunteer firefighters.
Gov. Steve Bullock, D-Mont., declared a state of emergency the following Sunday.
“It took them so long to set up a camp when they should have already been up here,” Bliss said. “The local BLM had all of their resources up here, but that wasn’t enough for how enormous this is.”
Until the Type II team could get itself established in the area, the ranchers and local residents were doing all they could to stop the fire themselves. It became a community effort of neighbor helping neighbor to redirect and save as much land and cattle as they could.
Even after the Type II team arrived, Bliss said he was dissatisfied with the hierarchy put in place. The fire was raging across his property and Matt said he kept wondering why the team wasn’t jumping to help.
The entire process took too much time, in Bliss’ opinion. He couldn’t handle watching the fire burn while men traveled from the base camp to the fire, situated themselves, called back for engines and crew and then waited for okays from supervisors. On top of the chain of command, the crews were unfamiliar with the dusty backroads and were often lost.
“It took two days for the head guys, the supervisors, to know exactly where to go, and they got lost,” Bliss said. “Dalton (Bliss’ 14-year-old son) had to lead one of the head guys of this division all the way to the fire while we were trying to fight it, and that took three hours.”
Part of the reason Bliss said this fire became so out of control is that the extreme drought conditions and sheer magnitude of the fire were near impossible for the local forces to control. There’s no doubt that they needed the Type II team, Bliss said they just needed them to recognize the severity of the situation earlier.
“They need to let the local offices, the Miles City BLM needs to control the whole thing and have those people work for them and have the different heads run these crews instead of bringing in a supervisor from California, from North Carolina, from different states that have no clue what the terrain is,” Matt said. “They think they do, but they don’t. They just need to get better communication with the people and the landowners and say, ‘Here’s five engines. Take them and do what you need to with them.’ But they can’t, because their hands are tied and that’s the way the system works.”
Rick Connell, incident commander for the Lodgepole Complex Fire, said he knew it would take two days to really get the crews going on the fire. When he arrived on scene and delivered a brief on the situation, Connell said it would take some time to meet everybody, understand the dynamics and the individuals at play and find out where everyone was located inside the massive fire area.
“One of the things everybody needs to know is what an incident management team brings to these kinds of events: organization to chaos,” Connell said. “No matter what’s going on, it’s a lot of different people. In this case, it’s a lot of ranchers and crews from around the country. Because the fire grew so fast, everybody’s kind of taking bits and pieces of the fire and the team comes in, and we organize that and get everybody moving in the same direction.”
When Connell arrived on the scene, he said he was blown away by the efforts of the locals and the progress they were able to make on the fire.
“I really want to thank the amazing effort that was put out by the local folks,” Connell said. “We came in and we were supporting the local folks who really did the heavy lifting on this fire. We just came in and gave them the relief so that they could go back and get some good rest because they had been working 24/7 for five, six days straight. Our hats literally go off to those folks.”
No matter how it was handled, at this point the focus has turned to mopping up the remaining hot spots and figuring out how the ranchers will move forward.
On Thursday afternoon, the Federal Emergency Management Agency accepted the state’s appeal of their decision to deny Montana’s request for a Fire Management Assitance Grant.
The grant will cover 75 percent of the costs associated with the fire, including equipment, supplies, evacuation and sheltering.