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Charred pastures are left in the wake of the Lodgepole Complex of fires in eastern Montana. (Bureau of Land Management photo)

Damage evaluated at Lodgepole Complex Fire

SAND SPRINGS, Mont. — As firefighters work to continue containing eastern Montana's Lodgepole Complex Fire, ranchers in the area have begun to evaluate the damage.

Travis Brown is thankful for his neighbors, the ones who came when a wildfire jumped the highway and headed toward his house in Sand Springs, Mont.

"Every one of our neighbors lined up on highway to turn it away from our house," he says.

Brown has lost two cows that he knows of right now to the fire that burned 10,000 to 15,000 acres of his pastureland. That's about a third of his pasture.

"We're just getting the cows out of the burned pasture and getting them onto the pasture that didn't burn," he says.

He knows it could be worse. Some people have lost everything. He saw semis pull up to haul off what was left of a neighbor's cattle.

The fire, made up of several fires that started when lightning hit drought-shriveled grasses in eastern Montana, has burned 270,200 acres through the morning of July 28, says Tim Engrav, a public information officer with the Type 2 Incident Management Team, an interagency team brought in by the Bureau of Land Management, the state of Montana and Garfield County to help support local fire department resources as the blaze grew and became more complex.

Engrav says 16 "primary structures," either houses or cabins, have been destroyed by the fires.

An evacuation order for the area was lifted on July 25, so more details won't be available on the losses from the fire until people can report back to Garfield County officials.

"We expect that there are outbuildings, sheds, that kind of thing," Engrav says. "We don't have any idea on the number of that until they report back."

There also is no count yet of livestock lost to the fire, though Engrav says anecdotal reports indicate there may not have been as many livestock lost as originally thought.

Hundreds of miles of fence will have to be rebuilt in the area because of the fire, Brown says.

He says his hay crop appears to be OK; the fire burned out about 10 feet into a field of Roundup Ready alfalfa and a field of oats, so the hay crop wasn't destroyed.

"But boy the rangeland, it just scorched," he says.

Brown feels fortunate that he still has pasture to put cows on after the fire. With drought conditions continuing to intensify across the region, grass is in short supply, even for those who never saw a spark near their land.

The U.S. Drought Monitor released on July 27 shows Montana now has the largest percentage of land of any state in exceptional drought, the most severe category, with 11.87 percent.

Another 12.02 percent is in extreme drought, 13.87 percent is in severe drought and 11.12 percent is in moderate drought. Abnormally dry conditions also have spread farther west, with 32.85 percent of the state now in that designation.

"I think winter is going to come early this year," Brown says.

Hay will be a big need for the ranchers of eastern Montana, and Brown says everyone is thankful for what has been donated.

"We know how precious that hay is this year," he says.

The Northern Ag Network has a running list of needs for people in the area on its website, www.northernag.net, as well as contacts and information for people who wish to help.

"The local community has stepped up big time," Engrav says.

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