Rita and Russ Lucas’ Monday workday on their Spring Gulch cattle ranch started ordinarily enough: The husband-and-wife duo were clearing out ditches with fire to ready their hayfield for summer irrigation.

By early afternoon, the longtime residents looked drained — but relieved — as more than a dozen firefighters bounced around their pasture “mopping up” the remnants of flames from 25 acres of freshly blackened ground. In the intervening hours, a grass fire ran out of their control. Again and again, the couple tried to corral it before conceding they needed professional assistance.

“All of a sudden, out of nowhere, the wind hit,” Rita Lucas said. “I just never thought it would get that big, and it did.”

The grass-fed flames started jumping out of the “wet and dirty” ditches onto matted, cured grasses that lingered from last year, she said. Russ and Rita gave chase with a 100-gallon tanker truck and shovels trying to douse and tamp it down, but the flames kept flying, jumping one of the Lucases’ five irrigation ditches after the next.

“We’d have it under control,” Rita Lucas said, “and you’d turn your back and it would be big again.”

As crises often do, the situation started off worrisome before escalating to straight scary.

A haystack, as well as a freshly birthed calf and its ill-tempered “on the fight” mother, were straight in the line of fire, though Russ Lucas was able to scoop up the youngster on an ATV to move it out of harm’s way. Mom was pushed to safety as well, and the firefighters stopped the nearly 4-foot flames’ advances before they hit the haystack. The Lucases’ assets, hugged between North Highway 89 and Spring Gulch Road, were mostly spared, though the Monday misadventure will increase the ranchers’ reliance on cut hay for a while.

“This burned up all of our spring feed, for a month,” Russ Lucas said. “But it’s also gonna grow like hell now.”

Teton County Fire Marshal Kathy Clay’s colleagues received the call at 1:39 p.m. When they responded to the scene, the wind was stiff, though “squirrely,” as the fire ran primarily from the southwest to the northeast. Within an hour the flames were all but gone, the smoke dispersed and nerves mostly calmed.

“Our biggest challenge today was that our paid staff are all off fighting wildfire,” Clay said. “So the paramedics are all out here fighting wildfire right now.”

For Clay, the Spring Gulch grass fire was a reminder that even small, creeping blazes can flare up fast when the weather shifts. When the first flames hit the ground in the morning it was relatively cool and still, the Lucases said, but by midafternoon the thermometer touched 70 degrees and the wind was gusting to 20 miles an hour.

“No harm, no foul, with this one, but fires like this can take houses down,” Clay said. “That’s what people need to remember.”

Asked if lessons were learned, Russ Lucas looked stunned by the question and let out a chuckle.

“Yeah,” he said, “I would have done it a little bit differently.”

Rita Lucas was thankful for the help.

“Good response,” she said. “I’ll tell you what.”

Contact Mike Koshmrl at 732-7067 or env@jhnewsandguide.com.

Mike has reported on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem's wildlife, wildlands and the agencies that manage them for 7 years. A native Minnesotan, he arrived in the West to study environmental journalism at the University of Colorado.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Please turn off your CAPS LOCK.
No personal attacks. Discuss issues & opinions rather than denigrating someone with an opposing view.
No political attacks. Refrain from using negative slang when identifying political parties.
Be truthful. Don’t knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be proactive. Use the “Report” link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with us. We’d love to hear eyewitness accounts or history behind an article.
Use your real name: Anonymous commenting is not allowed.
If you share a web address, please provide context as to why you posted the link.