Firefighters from three counties and local farmers along with aerial support from the Montana Department of Natural Resources Conservation worked for hours on Sept. 4 to control and put out a 1,000-acre wildfire that started in a grain field southwest of Dutton.
Dutton Volunteer Fire Department Chief Jeff Horak said the 911 call came into the Teton County Sheriff’s Office at 4:21 p.m. Temperatures were in the mid-80s to mid-90s that day, humidity was very low and winds were blowing some 20-25 mph from the northwest. The state had already declared the day a “red flag” day, denoting high fire danger and a moratorium on planned burning.
Dutton VFD was the first responder paged out, but the Dutton crew immediately called for help. Eventually the Choteau, Power, Fairfield, Pendroy, Conrad, Sun River, Manchester and Brady volunteer fire departments all responded along with many farmers in the area.
In addition, Dutton crop duster Mike Campbell of Campbell Aviation provided firefighters with information on the fire from the air until DNRC sent an air tanker from Missoula to dump two loads of retardant on the leading edge of the fire.
The Teton County Emergency Medical Services sent two ambulances to stay on standby and provided water for firefighters. The Golden Harvest Café in Dutton sent food for the dozens of men and women who fought the fire.
Teton County deputy sheriffs and state Department of Transportation workers also responded to help with traffic control.
Horak, who drove from Sun River to get to the fire that day, said a combine harvesting dryland barley on the Harman place, farmed now by Tyler Sealey, caught on fire and ignited the crop blaze about five miles west of Dutton on the south side of Secondary Highway 221.
He said the fire burned quickly out of the cropland and into rangeland and land enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program. Driven by the gusty winds, the fire rolled south and west, threatening three homes, and burning property owned by five different landowners.
The fire consumed about a quarter of a section of standing grain, a section of CRP and probably two sections of rangeland as it burned up and over the Teton Ridge, running into a gravel pit on top that helped slow its progression.
“Our main line of defense initially was to protect the structures,” Horak said.
The fire burned about 20 round hay bales at Kurt Pigerim’s place right on Highway 221 and threatened the Wynn Park farmstead and a rented home on what Horak referred to as “the old Trebesch place.”
Horak said the fire was so out of control that it was not safe for firefighters to try to get in front of it. Park was able to help keep his place safe by plowing up black space between his home and the fire, and then it hit the gravel pit and slowed down.
“We kind of had to let it burn until it got to a place with very little fuel so we could get around it,” Horak said, adding that they pulled all the firefighters off the fire while the air tanker dropped two loads of retardant on the leading edge of the fire.
Farmers were able to get plowed lines around the north side of the fire as well and after the retardant drops, firefighters went in with spray trucks, shovels and rakes to knock it down and put it out.
Firefighters worked until dark on the fire, and Horak and others went out and checked on it several times during the night. Dutton VFD was paged out on Sept. 7 to smoke coming from the retardant line and also checked on the fire during that Saturday night.
Horak said no firefighters were injured in the fighting the blaze, no structures were burned and no firefighting trucks were damaged.
“I just want to make sure that I thank everyone who came out and helped,” Horak said, adding that he really appreciated Campbell’s air spotting for the fire crews.
Sealey on Monday said he too was thankful that the fire mainly damaged standing grain and fences rather than structures, humans or livestock. “It could have been way worse,” he said.
Sealey was combining barley on his property when a roller bearing in the header of the combine got hot, failed and started the fire. When he saw smoke, he drove his combine out of the field to the nearby water truck and his hired hand sprayed down the header, stopping the fire in the combine.
A passerby on Secondary Highway 221 stopped, and Sealey was able to ask him to call in the fire on his cell phone.
He said the fire immediately began consuming the crop and roared to life behind the gusty wind and low humidity.
Had the wind direction been a little different or the response a little slower, Sealey said, the fire could have burned down three inhabited homes. “The response by everybody was phenomenal,” he said. “They got it put out and they got it put out pretty quick, I thought.”
Sealey finished his harvest just before rain started to fall on Monday and said he was shifting gears to go into fall seeding — on the verge of late thanks to the lateness of this year’s harvest.
“We just want to thank everyone for showing up and working,” he said. “It’s very much appreciated.”