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Top50 Ranches shifts work to California and London offices as the Montana headquarters is hit by wildfire.

When a freak bolt of lightning hit the land surrounding the Top50 Ranches office headquarters in Roundup, Montana, last week, the team rallied to respond to the emergency. Set on the working ranch home of CEO 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, UK, office took up the reins to keep things moving forward.

The fire heads down the hill toward the barnyard and Top50 offices

“The fire started with lightning and quickly spread,” explains Jody, who quickly abandoned her desk and, along with her husband, Toby, headed out to try to gain control of the blaze and stop it spreading to neighboring land.

The team was alerted to the fire at 1200 hrs on Tuesday June 24, while out on business in the local town of Billings. Jody 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 firetrucks were on it and neighbors had also gathered, so the fire was contained,” she says. Spanning around six acres and located about five miles away from the Top50 main office, ranch houses and barnyard, the fire was not 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,” Jody recalls. Nevertheless the team cut business short and headed back to Top50 HQ to make sure everything was OK.

Forty-five minutes later, they 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. It was crazy,” Jody remembers. “Emotions were certainly raised, but somehow we managed to stay calm and focus on what we had do.” While Toby jumped in the tractor and headed out to make a fireguard around the north west and south perimeters, Jody found a safe place for their children, at a friend and neighbor’s house just up the road. Meanwhile, friends and neighbors quickly rallied to help move the Dahl’s horses to a safe pasture away from the barnyard. Friends, neighbors – even locals the Dahls didn’t know – soon started calling to offer their help, bringing in trailers to pull out all the animals and helping set fireguards. “People were so eager to chip in and help out,” says Jody, explaining how the local church brought in food and supplies for the firemen, volunteers and ranchers.

Firefighters came in to help battle the blaze

“A huge team of firefighters were trying to contain the fire as it rolled down the hill toward the barn, and we were convinced the fire wouldn’t jump the creek running between the barnyard and our home and offices,” she recalls. “Well, it jumped the creek.” Embers were thrown over 200 yards across the other side of 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,” remembers Jody. “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.”

After just a few hours the fire came to within inches of the Dahl home and Top50 Offices

Out of controlBut 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,” recalls Jody, “– all we could do was try to steer it away from our home and offices with fire guards.” Fire guards, often used in the event of wildfires, involve pulling up bare dirt around the outside of the blaze to stop it spreading. The team then set to work lighting backfires (pictured below) to try to contain the areas of most concern. This technique involves lighting fires within a perimeter of pulled-up dirt, 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,” says Jody.

Jody lights backfires in an attempt to contain the fire (helped by pup Hank)

The Top50 Ranches founder and CEO 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,” Jody recalls.

Back in the UK 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 9am the next day that I got news of the fire.” It was posts on Jody’s Facebook page from friends offering help and best wishes that alerted Mel to the news. “A quick Google later and I found news of ‘The Dahl Fire’ on the Billings Gazette website – I was terrified and immediately assumed the worst. Luckily a few US contacts were still online and assured me everyone was safe, but that fire was still raging.” Mel swiftly stepped into the breach and took over Top50 business while the head office team dealt with matters at hand.

True to form, Jody was back dealing with Top50 Ranches affairs just two days later. Backfires lit and the fire safely contained – although still burning – mop-up crews and helicopters and planes with fire retardant were sent in to put out the fires completely, and help contain any new flare-ups. Neighboring rancher and good friend to the Dahls, Pat Cremer was one of the volunteers helping with the emergency. “We were over there all day – what an extravaganza!” she says. “But Jody and Toby are some of the most fire-savvy people I've been around – things could have even been worse had they and their neighbors not been so vigilant and effective.”

After-effects“We lost 4,000 of our total 18,000 acres to the fire – the timber loss has yet to be determined,” says Jody. “The grass is gone and will require a few years of care to re-establish, 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 on the revenue generated by the ranch – an added blow amidst a recession in what is already a tough industry. But compared to some others, the Dahls got off lightly. “Another nearby rancher lost 2,500 acres of cattle-grazing land, leaving him with only 300 grazing acres,” explains Jody. “It’s going to leave them in a real bind this year.”

The fire raged on for several days and nights, and spread more than 35 miles

Having lost around 12 miles of fencing to the fire, the Dahls will be spending at least a year building new fence along the affected pastures. “But for all the land that was destroyed, nothing is as devastating as it for those who lost their homes,” she says. While the fire caused widespread destruction on the Dahl ranch, it didn’t stop there, spreading to neighboring ranches where it took down around 72 structures along the way. “There was no rhyme or reason for what houses it took and which ones it left in its path. We are 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.”

One means by which the Dahls are looking to give to affected locals is through the burnt trees that will soon be falling on their ranch, some of which can be used as winter firewood. Others will be milled to create beautiful ‘blued’ lumber – Jody explains: “When our ponderosa pine trees burn, it creates a beautiful ‘blueing’ effect to the lumber, which can be used for building indoor and outdoor furniture.”

Jody and neighbor Fred teamed up with other volunteers to battle the fire - and they won

The smoke cloud’s silver lining“’What’s hard on people, is good for the land’ – that’s really a difficult thing to swallow,” says Jody. While the fire caused mass devastation to so many in the area, just as the widespread wildfires continue to do further south in Colorado, 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. It’s so good for the land to cleanse itself this way – getting rid of ‘duff’ undertrees that prevent healthy grasses growing and allowing new, fresh growth to occur,” she explains. “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.”




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