Set on the working ranch home of chief executive officer and founder Jody Dahl and her family, as well as herds of horses and cattle, the Top50 Ranches office was evacuated as a team gathered the fight the ensuing blaze.
In swift response, Mel Rutherford at the London office took up the reins to keep things moving forward.
Cause for Alarm?
The team was alerted to the fire at noon on Tuesday, June 24, while out on business in the local town of Billings.
Dahl was interrupted with a call saying a fire had been spotted on a small area of the ranch.
“We were told not to worry or rush back, as the fire trucks were on it, and the fire was contained,” Dahl said.
Spanning around six acres and located about five miles away from the Top50 main office, ranch houses, and barnyard, the fire wasn’t a cause for alarm for the team—who had just five days previous moved all of their cattle from the affected land and surrounding pastures.
“It sounded like everything was okay and we weren’t too worried at that point,” recalled Dahl. Nevertheless, the team cut business short and headed back to Top50 HQ to make sure everything was okay.
Forty-five minutes later, the team arrived back at the ranch only to find the fire had picked up speed.
“We pulled up to find it rolling down the hill toward our barnyard,” said Dahl. “It was crazy. Emotions were certainly raised, but somehow we managed to stay calm and focus on what we had do.”
Dahl’s husband, Toby, jumped in the tractor and headed out to make a fireguard around the northwest and south perimeters. Fire guards involve pulling up bare dirt around the outside of the blaze to stop it from spreading
Dahl found a safe place for their children. Meanwhile, friends and neighbors quickly rallied to help move the Dahls’ horses to a safe pasture away from the barnyard. They brought in trailers and helped set fireguards.
“People were so eager to chip in and help out,” said Dahl. “A huge team of firefighters were trying to contain the fire as
it rolled down the hill toward the barn. We were convinced the fire wouldn’t jump the creek running between the barnyard and our home and offices.
“Well, it jumped the creek.”
Embers were thrown across the road, where fire touched down and took off—right toward the Dahl family home and Top50 offices.
“I just grabbed the nearest shovel and headed up to the hill to try to work with other volunteers to contain it,” Dahl said. “Even aged just 11 years, my eldest son, Brigem, was a huge asset, filling up water tanks and buckets to make sure we had water on hand for areas the fire engines hadn’t yet reached.”
Out of Control
But the fire was now firmly out of control, rolling so fast that all the Dahls and their team of volunteers could do was watch.
“There was no stopping or getting in front of it,” Dahl said. “All we could do was try to steer it away from our home and
offices with fire guards.”
The team then set to work lighting backfires to try to contain the areas of most concern. This technique involves lighting fires within a perimeter of a fireguard to prevent embers from the main blaze jumping and catching new ground, essentially, forcing the fire to burn back into itself.
“That made a big difference,” said Dahl.
She checked in with her husband see if he had everything he needed, then drove in the necessary supplies through the burned areas of the ranch.
“Everything was hot and dirty,” Dahl recalled.
A local church brought in food and supplies for the firemen, volunteers, and ranchers.
Taking Care of Business
Back at the London office, Top50’s Editor, Mel Rutherford, was oblivious to the drama unfolding 4,500 miles away.
“Due to the time difference, I was fast asleep as the fire kicked in, so it wasn’t until I switched on my computer at 9 a.m. the next day that I got news of the fire.”
Rutherford was alerted to the news via Facebook posts. “I found news of ‘The Dahl Fire’ on the Billings Gazette website. I was terrified and immediately assumed the worst. Luckily, a few U.S. contacts were still online and assured me everyone was safe, but that fire was still raging.”
Rutherford swiftly stepped into the breach and took over Top50 business, while the head office team dealt with matters at hand.
Just two days later, Dahl was back at her Top50 Ranches desk.
Although the fire was safely contained, mop-up crews, helicopters, and planes with fire retardant were sent in to put out the fire completely, and help contain any new flare-ups.
Path of Destruction
“We lost 4,000 of our total 18,000 acres to the fire,” reported Dahl. “The timber loss has yet to be determined. The grass is gone and will require a few years of care to reestablish, so our stocking rates will go down for the next few years, drastically reducing the number of cattle we can run on the ranch.”
This impacts the revenue generated by the ranch, an added blow amidst a recession in what’s already a tough industry.
Having lost around 12 miles of fencing to the fire, the Dahls will be spending at least a year building new fence.
“But for all the land that was destroyed, nothing is as devastating as it for those who lost their homes,” Dahl said, noting that the fire spread to neighboring ranches, taking down around 72 structures.
“There was no rhyme or reason for what houses it took and which ones it left in its path,” said Dahl. “We’re so saddened for all those who lost their homes and everything they had. Top50 is currently working on ways to help those affected by the devastation.”
‘Good for the Land’
“ ‘What’s hard on people, is good for the land’— that’s really a difficult thing to swallow,” said Dahl.
She noted that while the fire caused mass devastation, just as the wildfires continue to do in Colorado and Wyoming, such a blaze is actually a blessing for the land and its ecosystem.
“We actually periodically light contained fires ourselves that measure five or six acres, to encourage regeneration of grass and trees,” said Dahl. “It’s so good for the land to cleanse itself this way—getting rid of ‘duff’ under trees that prevent healthy grasses growing and allowing new, fresh growth to occur.
“In two years, the areas of the land that burned will be so lush and beautiful. It’s just a shame that it has to be so tough on individuals.”