I think this is a good time to share the obvious reality concerning the Lodgepole fire complex.
First of all, lightning started the fire in Sandage Coulee, not in Lodgepole Creek. Sandage Coulee is located in the center of a Wilderness Study Area. This Wilderness Study Area only includes a few thousand acres of very rugged Musselshell river breaks.
These areas have very strict rules as to how they can be used, including no roads, no motorized use, no improvements or such installments as water pipelines or fire suppression other than what firefighters can do on foot with whatever they’re able to carry in. Local BLM and volunteer firefighters push the limits, but only so far. The Lodgepole fire was allowed to grow in the beginning because of these rules, and the fact that there was no vehicle access allowed to fight the fires.
Then, because of the dry conditions and winds, the fire grew out of control as it expanded and consumed thousands of acres heading South, and spreading East and West. At the same time, the fire smoldered and burned in Sandage Coulee for several days, slowly creeping north.
I practically begged the BLM and firefighters passing through, telling them it was crucial that they attend to the fire in Sandage Coulee. I couldn’t understand why my warnings fell on deaf ears. But finally, they sent a crew as the fire exploded, coming up Sandage Coulee rapidly and devouring Smith Coulee as it burned out of the proposed wilderness area.
It was then that they arrived with 5 pumper trucks and a small crew. They tried to make a stand but by then the fire had grown so fierce they couldn’t stop it. It then burned to Lodgepole Creek with the help of a hard wind. The fire had already reached upper Lodgepole by that point, but the fires burned together, then spread to the North and to the East.
I am describing all of this to help everyone understand what part the proposed wilderness area played in this horrible disaster. Those involved will probably dispute what I am telling, but it is exactly what happened. I’m not blaming anyone for anything. I’m just pointing out what the responders have to deal with.
I believe it is time for all of us to make it clear to Representative Gianforte and Senators Daines and Tester that we insist that they retire the ridiculous designation of Wilderness Study Areas. The designation serves no purpose and has contributed a great deal to this disaster in particular. I think the most effective way to make the changes needed is to flood Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke with our concerns. and urge a change in federal lands management.
Rep. Bill Harris (HD 37)
Rancher and owner of
Fort Musselshell Outfitters