DUBOIS, Idaho — Cattle struggled and lumbered across the dry grasses as a fire raged behind them, filling the skies with smoke and robbing the air of oxygen.
In many ways, the scene was almost an Idaho version of the biblical account found in Exodus. Except this time, there was no sea to part and no promised land to reach.
Clark County Sheriff Bart May couldn’t help but feel bad for the animals and the ranchers rushing to save their cattle before the flames consumed them and their fields.
“Some of them poor cows, they have to travel eight miles in that heat and without any water,” Clark County Sheriff Bart May told KID NewsRadio. “They looked pretty dang tired and so did the cowboys.”
The cattle were standing in a veritable powder keg of fuel for the Grassy Ridge fire. Almost tens of thousands of acres lay blackened and burned, and now the blaze was heading straight for the small city of Dubois.
The day before Sheriff May watched another fire speed across acres of sage brush in almost no time at all. In less than an hour, the blaze had consumed miles of dry vegetation and rangeland. Now, the Bureau of Land Management said Sheriff May needed to evacuate his town of 500 people in 30 minutes.
“I watched that thing go over 15 miles in less than an hour and a half,” Sheriff May said. “So, the fact that it was two and a half miles out of town and they were telling me I had 30 minutes… I truly believed I had 30 minutes.”
A Race Against the Clock
Sheriff May would be racing the clock short staffed too. With both deputies out of town, knocking each of the 500 doors in Dubois would require all hands on deck.
— Bureau of Land Management Idaho Fire (@BLMIdahoFire) July 29, 2018
“The forest rangers, the BLM rangers and ISP they jumped right in and started helping me,” Sheriff May said. “We started sending officers to every house knocking on the door and informing them…I notified my two neighboring counties, [Fremont County] Sheriff Humphries and [Jefferson County] Sheriff Anderson, and asked if they could send me two officers each to come help me.”
The neighboring sheriffs didn’t stop at each sending just two officers to the now overwhelmed Clark County sheriff. Sheriff Anderson, current President of the Tri-County Sheriff Association, sent Sheriff May’s call for help to 18 surrounding counties’ law enforcement agencies.”
“They acted immediately started sending guys,” Sheriff May said. “I had 38 patrol cars from the Sheriff’s Association come into town and give me assistance. I had Sheriff Humphries, [Bonneville County Sheriff Paul Wild] and [Bingham County Sheriff Craig Roland] all show up here themselves.”
“We’re Here to Help”
Dubois residents immediately began evacuating and neighboring cities opened up their homes and buildings to the fleeing residents. People from Bonneville County to the nearby city of Hamer called Sheriff May incessantly with the same message, “We’re here to help.”
“People all over the community calling from Hamer to Idaho Falls, to Rigby, to Madison County…they had bedrooms available for anybody who needed it,” Sheriff May said. “The city of Hamer opened up their elementary school, provided food and everything…It was just absolutely phenomenal to see the communities around us that just came in and helped us just as though as we were family.”
Defend and Protect
With the town vacant, save 15 people who’d elected to stay and wait the fire out, Sheriff May’s attention now turned to protection of property. Sheriff May knew with the call to evacuate, there would be a potential risk of thieves ready to pounce on the opportunity to loot open and empty homes.
“We put out news broadcasts and everything that probably notified every thief, crook and that out there that the city of Dubois is now vacant, every house is more or less free pickings,” Sheriff May said. “So, I asked [the sheriffs] to have these officers do nothing, but patrol up and down every one of my streets and if they seen anybody in a house, they were to check and make sure that they belong to that house.”
Thieves weren’t the only problem officers would find. Do-gooders posed just as much a threat to the city as robbers did. During one patrol, officers discovered a man hoping to save the city of Dubois by lighting a backfire.
“In the middle of the night, they actually found one guy that was sneaking down the railroad tracks with a gas can and a torch,” Sheriff May said. “His intention was to save the city of Dubois by doing a backfire which would have been absolutely the worst thing that could have happened to us. ”
Ranchers to the Rescue
Law enforcement wouldn’t be the only heroes on the front lines though. After the Idaho Legislature approved the Rangeland Fire Protection Association in 2012 and most recently, 300 volunteer ranchers and farmers train and mobilize when necessary, to fight wildfires that threaten their grazing lands.
Drawing on the motto, “neigbors helping neighbors,” approved RFDA divisions allow local ranchers and farmers to access specialized training and grants for firefighting equipment.
“Governed and directed by you and members of your local community…[the RFPA] provides services to suppress range fires in your local area,” according to the Idaho RFPA brochure. “Funded by fees set by your localBoard of Directors… Equipment could be provided through the Federal Excess Personal Property (FEPP) program…[and] training is provided by the Idaho Department of Lands and the Bureau of Land Management at no cost to the Association.”
Almost two years ago, the legislature approved a 20-member division in the Camas Creek area which now stood directly in the path of the fire. Sheriff May knew the ranchers could lose everything in a blaze like the Grassy Ridge fire, but the local RFPA was ready to do their part to protect Dubois and their livelihood.
“The day the fire happened, that morning that RFDA had got together and trained, and that afternoon they were activated,” Sheriff May said. “It is just phenomenal to see how well they come together and how they worked on that fire, especially combined with the BLM and the Forest Service.”
Idaho lawmakers took note as the RFPA mobilized to fight the almost 100,000 acre fire. Federal officials would later approve federal funds to help combat the Grassy Ridge fire.
“I’ve been monitoring the
#GrassyRidgeFire,” Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson said on Twitter. ‘It is no surprise to hear how local ranchers & residents coordinated with federal & local firefighters to keep the fire from Dubois. This collaboration is an example of the sense of community embodied in Idahoans. #Idahome.”
With law enforcement, forest rangers, BLM crews and RFPA mobilized, the fire faced a formidable barrier to the city of Dubois. Gradually, the blaze slowed down. BLM officials called Sheriff May to let him know the evacuation window had increased from 30 minutes to a couple of hours.
Soon after, Sheriff May said it was safe for Dubois residents to return home.
Safe and Sound
But, Sheriff May wasn’t relaxed just yet. Crews had been able to stop the fire about two and a half miles away from the city and Sheriff May knew the residents would see that when they returned to Dubois. While days before he had personally seen the devastation wreaked by the blaze in other parts of the region, all within a matter of minutes, the residents may not be so convinced of the threat the fire posed. As residents returned to their undamaged homes and property, a question loomed in the back of Sheriff’s May’s mind.
“I started stressing that, I’m going to allow people to come back to their homes and they’re gonna to see that the fire is about two and a half miles out of town and see that I evacuated them and feel like that it wasn’t as big a emergency as what we made it out to be, and that the next time they probably wouldn’t want to evacuate when we asked them to,” Sheriff May said. “That was a big concern of mine because you know, the last thing we want is the city of Dubois to burn down, but at the same time, had to fire come right up to the edge of Dubois when people come back to their homes and they wouldn’t have probably evacuated the next time that we ask them to evacuate.”
Sheriff May expressed these concerns to a group of almost 200 people during a city meeting. Dubois had been spared, but that didn’t mean there hadn’t been a severe risk of the blaze destroying the city just hours earlier.
“We‘re not going to go through an evacuation, if we don’t believe that life or property is at great risk,” Sheriff May said. “Once they leave, we do everything we can to stay in harms way and protect their property until it’s absolutely necessary that we have to leave…when they came home, they came home to exactly what they left. Their property, everything was still right where it was and and they didn’t have to worry about coming home to bunch of things missing, and the fact that if this happens again, I need them to do the same thing I need them to evacuate when we ask them to be evacuate because had they all stayed and that fire hit Dubois in that 30 minutes, we would have lost lives”
Despite collaborative fire fighting efforts, the blaze did impact some ranchers. Road weary cattle that had pushed through miles of smoke and heat during the initial evacuations now had no place to go. Old grazing lands lay scorched and smoldering, inedible and inhospitable for cattle. But, the same spirit of comradery and community pushed through the ashes and smoke to offer a little light for those ranchers who wondered what they’d do next.
“We have ranchers and farmers out here that have lost virtually 100 percent of their grasslands for their cattle,” Sheriff May said. “I watched cowboys from all over come together and help people get cows and that out of harm’s way. It’s just impressive what kind of community we live in.”