Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on December 7, 2021.

‘No Stopping It’

A Montana cattle rancher reflects on a summer wildfire and what the growing intensity of fire means for people, property, and livestock


Driven by scorching heat and high winds, the Richard Spring Fire torched more than 170,000 acres of land as it burned through southeastern Montana in mid-August. Hit particularly hard were the area’s many cattle ranchers, who often serve as the first responders for wildfires on their property. About a month after the blaze, Jacqueline Wilmot, a research project manager at the Fire Protection Research Foundation, spoke with longtime cattle rancher Clint McRae about his experiences dealing with that fire, and wildfire in general, at Rocker Six Ranch near Colstrip, Montana. Below is an edited excerpt of Wilmot’s interview with McRae, as well as a recent NFPA Podcast episode featuring the interview.

’ve been fighting fires
, going to fires with my dad, ever since I was about 6 or 7 years old. So wildfires are nothing new for me. Here in Rosebud County, we live in a very active fire area. It’s arid in the summer, and we get thunderstorms with lightning that commonly cause fires.

But the fire that burned in August, this thing was bad. I’ve seen bad before. I’ve seen extreme fire conditions. But when it starts threatening your house and your outbuildings, that creates a whole new dynamic. This was personal. For the first time in my life, we just about lost our house. This thing burned 100,000 acres in one day. It was 104 degrees with 50-mile-an-hour winds, and the humidity percentage was close to single digits. There was just no stopping it. We lost three of our six stackyards [for storing hay] and about 500 bales of hay. More than 90 percent of our land burned.

What many people may not know is that ranchers like myself are usually the first responders to wildfires on their property. In fact, the state provides us with wildland fire engines with 500-gallon water tanks attached to them. When wildfires occur, the initial strategy is always to go out with that truck and to see if we can get a direct attack on the flames. If we can knock it down with water, we will. If it’s more extreme, if the flame height and heat are too much, we’ll back off, get equipment like bulldozers, and make a fire line. If it’s even more extreme than that—and this is what happened in August—then we have to get assistance from state and sometimes federal firefighters, who come in with air attacks and all the toys in the toybox, so to speak.

When I was first allowed to start responding to fires with my dad, we didn’t have a system like this or tools like this. Maybe a rancher would have a little [Caterpillar] ’dozer and he’d scratch a line in the ground. But looking back, those fires also weren’t as nasty as they are now.

These fires are getting more severe, they’re getting scarier. I think there’s a couple of reasons for that. The first reason, I think, is our climate is changing. I think people in my line of work don’t always want to admit that, but I’ve seen some drastic changes, so that’s part of it. The other problem is fuel loads. We don’t want to overgraze our grass on the ranch, so we always have some place that’s rested for a year or two, so we can turn cattle in there and graze it. But the problem with that is that’s a huge fuel load, and when that catches on fire, it’s really hard to stop. We’ve had flame heights this year in some of these pastures of five or six feet. You just can’t get close to that.

Looking to the future, after the devastation of the fire in August, we’ve had to make the difficult decision to sell all our cattle three years old and older, take that money, and in the next two years start buying cattle back. It’s difficult, but we’re also counting ourselves lucky to even have cattle we can sell. In 2012, we had a terrible fire year, and a cousin of mine lost 170 head of cattle. A neighbor lost 400 head.

So this time, we knew we had to get ahead of this fire. We opened gates, cut fences, and let those cattle go. It’s always a risk doing that, but it’s better to find cattle 15 miles away but alive than to find them dead. We had cattle scattered everywhere after the fire. We’re still getting them back. 

ANGELO VERZONI is associate editor of NFPA Journal. Follow him on Twitter @angelo_verzoni. Top photograph: PHIL MILLETT