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Montana communities fight wildfires and severe drought conditions

Yellowstone Presbytery and local churches see long road to recovery

by Rick Jones | Presbyterian News Service

In July 2017, several fast-moving wildfires tore through northeastern Montana, charring hundreds of thousands of acres near Fort Peck Lake. (NASA image)

LOUISVILLE – “It’s bad, Dust Bowl bad.” That’s how Kathy Goodrich, co-general presbyter of the Yellowstone Presbytery, describes the impact of Montana wildfires this summer. Hot, dry conditions have proven costly for communities across the state as wildfires continue to spread.

“More than 270,000 acres have burned, over 460 square miles with 80 – 100 percent loss of grazing lands,” said Goodrich. “More than 1,400 miles of fencing, valued at $15 million, have been lost. Some ranches, already drought-stricken, are in serious jeopardy.”

A hotter-than-expected June dried up vegetation, creating conditions for the wildfires, something state officials had not anticipated. As a result, the state is quickly spending its firefighting fund. Forecasters, meantime, are predicting major wildfire threats through October for eastern Montana, southern California and the western Dakotas.

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has provided a $7,500 grant to the presbytery. Jim Kirk, PDA’s associate for disaster response, has been in contact with Goodrich. Part of the grant will be used to provide a pastoral presence in the impacted communities currently without a pastor.

“The economic impact to the northeastern part of the state is devastating,” he said. “Farmers have lost their feed and cattle. In some instances, the herds have ended up on ground that has been burned, causing their hooves to blister. When that happens, many cattle have to be euthanized.”

Many ranchers, according to the presbytery, will have to sell off cattle to survive, while others will have to wait two years before calves are ready to go to market. Other ranchers, who are just starting out, are quickly finding themselves struggling to stay in business.

“Additional fires have sprung up or worsened with heat and winds and no rain in our presbytery and Glacier the past few days,” said Goodrich. “This is very sobering. Our mountains are barely visible now.”

Goodrich says the impact on farmers, ranchers and the communities could extend a generation or two.

“Ranchers, whose families have been ranching for several generations have said this is the worst they’ve seen and believe we are headed for another dust bowl if nature doesn’t change,” she said. “You look at the vast displacement of people and what it does to the entire food chain and the economy.”

Dan Holland, an elder with First Presbyterian Church of Bozeman, is a cabinet leader with Yellowstone Presbytery. In a prayer written in the presbytery newsletter, Holland describes the feelings of residents impacted by the flames.

“Day after day the thermometer hits ninety and a hundred and they haven’t seen rain in so long, they forget how it feels when those big summer raindrops fall on sunburned forearms,” the prayer reads. “We pray that not another house will be lost, not another barn will be torched.”

Church leaders in the region say people are working 12 to 14 hours a day not only for themselves, but to help their neighbors.

“The work ethic for most people in Montana is superb. The ranchers, farmers and businesses work unbelievably hard,” said Goodrich. “If people say they are going to do something, they do it. Most of them don’t work to be wealthy, they’re working to make a living and take care of the land.”

Goodrich says prairie fires will spread rapidly, prompting most ranchers to let the cattle roam free in hopes of avoiding the flames.

“If they didn’t lose them in the fire, they’ve lost them temporarily after cutting the fences because you never know which direction the flames will head,” she said. “People are coming from neighboring ranches to try and sort out the cattle. If the cattle breed with each other, you have all of these bloodlines that may have crossed, resulting in young calves dropping in winter on the frozen ground.”

The long term impact of the drought and fires has everyone across the state concerned. Ranchers are feeding their herds with hay that would normally be set aside until October. Many are seeking bank loans in order to survive.

The presbytery has regular meetings with a cluster of pastors in the area for mutual encouragement, prayer and the sharing of ideas.

“If America could capture what we see in these small, rural ranching towns, we wouldn’t have half the problems we have in the U.S.,” said Goodrich. “I wish I could take young people to some of these communities. The resilience, faith and hope of residents, along with the generosity of the small churches in this presbytery, are incredible. They believe that if they don’t give of their money, time, energy and care, this ministry won’t happen.”

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Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is able to respond quickly to emergencies because of gifts to the One Great Hour of Sharing.

Those interested in supporting efforts to help the residents of Montana can give through PDA account number DR000165, by clicking here.


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