BONNERS FERRY — Shawn Watt, who resides in Kalispell, but grew up and spent most of her life in Bonners Ferry, calling it her “Idahome,” suffered a barn fire about ten years ago. “The barn and contents were a complete loss,” said Watt.
The cause of the fire remains uncertain. “What we do know,” said Watt, “is that the worst circumstances brings out the best in your community. Our lifelong friends, the Kellogg’s, put the word out of what had happened and the next day Frank Hanks was in our yard with a trailer load of hay. That overwhelming feeling of the love that came with that load of hay has been with us every day since.”
When the Lodgepole Complex Fire devastated the land, consuming and destroying over 270,000 acres near Jordan, Montana, Watt had to act. “It was a no-brainer when we saw the folks in Garfield and the surrounding counties needed hay- it was our time to pay it forward.”
What began as four fires, ignited by lightning strikes in the already scorchingly dry landscape on July 19, eventually joined forces and became one large fire, burning up individual cattle producers grazing land and hay, an undetermined number of cattle, 16 homes, numerous other structures, corrals, calving sheds, water developments, and approximately 1800 miles of fences.
Watt joined forces with Deena Shotzberger from Libby, coordinating a relief effort to provide hay and other supplies from donors in Northwest Montana and Northern Idaho. “Deena Shotzberger has donated her skill-set, her time, money- and hay- for this drive,” said Watt. “It would not be possible without her. I told her if she would be the Boss, I would be her lackey. Through the use of google sheets we have managed to match up the haulers with the hay as well as keeping track of all the donations. I think we make a good team. She is a superb organizer and a wonderful human. We will be friends long after the hay is delivered.”
The estimated hay needs are approximately 34,000 tons to feed 7700 head of cattle through to the next projected grazing turnout date of June 1, 2018. “Some of this hay need has been mitigated by donated grazing from other ranchers and opening of the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge north of Jordan for emergency grazing relief; but the need for hay is still critical,” wrote Shotzberger.
Emergency hay donations have been coming in since July 24. “The first rounds came from the drought stricken neighbors who provided hay despite having none to spare,” wrote Shotzberger. “Caravans of hay continue to come in from all over Montana and adjacent states; some as far away as New Mexico.”
Thousands of cattle survived the inferno, thanks to ranchers who cut their fences, allowing them to escape, only to face now the threat of starvation and dehydration. Ranchers are working toward collecting their herds, but for them, the challenges are just beginning. For many, the cattle are their livelihood. The ones that must sell their cattle, will not be able to replace them until there is grass to support the herds, meaning they could face up to two years or more before they have a payday.
What started as a desire to donate some hay has turned into a much larger scale relief and coordinating effort. Watt and Shotzberger are matching up donations of hay and supplies with those who can donate hauling. They will coordinate any donated labor with those that expressed a need for hay pick up and loading, and are coordinating with the receiving area. “Most of this caravan will be hauling hay and supplies directly to impacted ranchers,” wrote Shotzberger. “For fund donation you can contact Shawn or Deena, or you can deposit to the paypal account (paypal.me/2017Hayrelief) and use the friends and family option.”
“With the help of Kristy Kellogg, who has called the farmers who we didn’t reach by social media,” said Watt. “I feel like we are going to make a difference to a few ranchers over there. We have had offers of Drivers and offers of fencing supplies and of course we have had offers of hay. The biggest hurdle we have is getting it there. It is over 1200 miles for the Boundary County folks — so this is no small ask.”
“Most of the semi’s already lined up will load at the larger producers; but there may have one semi that could be loaded from a drop area in the Flathead on Friday, Aug. 11,” wrote Shotzberger. “The drop point has not been finalized, but may be in Somers.”
If they get the support of additional semi’s they may line up additional drop points and the plan is to load the semi’s with large squares or rounds. The small square bales and excess large rounds or squares will be loaded on trucks and trailers.
The caravan will meet Saturday, August 12, at 6 a.m. at the Town Pump in Columbia Falls, which is located at the junction of Highway 2 and Highway 40. They will then proceed up Highway 2 through Browning to Great Falls, Lewistown and then to the designated drop off points near Winnette and Sand Springs.
Many have already stepped up and are offering hay, fencing materials, transportation, or financial donations. One donor, Penny Johnson from Bonners Ferry, was moved to help and she told Watt, “I still remember the feeling in August of 2015 when the fire was so close here and it could have been the same for me as it is for them.”
According to Watt, among those responding to the call include: Tye Iverson of Iverson Farms, and Ben Nystrom of Nystrom Farms, who both donated semi loads of hay. Other hay donations have come in from Tim Jantz, Mike Riebli, Rusty Ritz of the Ritz Ranch, John and Kristy Kellogg of Double K Ranch, Isabell “Penny” Johnson, and Matt and Chuck Quillin. The Future Farmers of America donated 10-15 tons of their hay and O’Connel Hay Service donated 10 tons. Labor has been donated by Kyler Rice and Connor Bennett, as well as Everhart Logging. Jeff and Ketta Everhart have offered to drive a pickup load. Delton Amoth and Mike Riebli have generously offered to take their semis over, each with a load of about 28 tons. There have also been cash donations from Ruth Ann Wilson, Bonners Ferry Glass, Brianna and Dan Vanderkooy, Deb and Lee Tuott, Dani and Kirk Stienhorst. Chuck and Shari Anderson sent a cash donation to help cover fuel costs among other generous notable donations from the Flathead. Dawn Brennan has offered up fencing supplies and Johnathen Allen has offered transport for two semi loads of hay. KT Farms has also donated hay and fencing supplies, McManus transport has offered a semi and driver, and Montana Angus Ranch will be supporting the efforts as well.
They are still in great need of the following items: certified or essentially weed free hay, truck and trailers to haul hay, semis to haul large squares or rounds, funds to help with fuel costs, fencing supplies, and labor to pick up and load hay.
“Federal assistance and emergency loans will be available to producers in the fire area, and Tester is trying to expedite the process, but the funds may be several months out, and will only cover a portion of the losses and needs,” Shotzberger wrote. “So Northern Idaho and Northwest Montana - let’s step up and help our brother and sister Montanans.”
To contribute to this effort or for more information, contact:
Deena Shotzberger, 406-293-8188 or email@example.com
Shawn Watt, 208-610-4205 or firstname.lastname@example.org
In emails please include “HAY” in the subject line.