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Pryor Road rancher loses winter pasture, fencing in fire

Jack Kukowski looking at his scorched land
Posted at 5:36 PM, Sep 01, 2023
and last updated 2023-09-01 19:36:00-04

PRYOR — When wildfires blow through Montana, they often leave behind a trail of destruction. That's something many residents living on Pryor Road now know firsthand following the fire that was sparked Tuesday afternoon.

A lifetime of hard work was gone in an instant.

"There’s probably 12 to 15 hundred acres of ours right here that got burned. That’s a lot of grass for cows,” said Jack Kukowski, a Pryor Road resident, on Friday. "It impacts us because it burns up the fences and you have to build new fences. It destroyed all the grassland that the cows survive on. All of this behind is our winter pasture, so the cows are not going to get anything to eat this winter unless we give them hay, or we have to buy hay.”

Jack Kukowski
Jack Kukowski

That's just the tip of the iceberg for the damages to Kukowski’s property.

“We’ll probably have to purchase hay, but another big problem is the fences are all burned up and they have to be repaired and rebuilt," Kukowski said. "And that’s a lot of physical labor for an old guy like me."

The Pryor Road fire sparked Tuesday afternoon, destroying everything in its path and leaving residents like Kukowski with years of costly repairs.

“It’ll take a year probably or two before we can rebuild all the fences. Or we can hire contractors, maybe,” Kukowski said. “We probably have to pay for it out of our pocket unless they come up with disaster assistance. Maybe they will."

Part of Jack's property
Part of Jack's property

His winter feed for his cattle is now gone, and the fences to hold those cattle were also wiped out.

But the damage could have been much worse without those who immediately jumped into action.

“There was a lot of firefighters out here. And we sure thank them, my goodness. They’ve done an excellent job, what they could do. And they finally got it stopped down here before it crossed the highway,” Kukowski said. “The community helped by putting out the fire. I mean there (were) ranchers and farmers, everybody came down and helped put this fire out. It just, I thank so many people."

Something echoed by a first responder.

"I think every ranch truck and ranch hand from the Blue Creek area responded. And if they had a water tank and a pump they were on scene, or shovels and a flapper to work on putting out fires," said Kent O'Donnell, a captain with the Yellowstone County Sheriff's Office, on Friday. "I mean, every farm truck you could think of in the county seemed to be down in that area. It was just really neat watching them work together."

Kent O'Donnell
Kent O'Donnell

O’Donnell responded to the fire and said what he saw on scene was something that filled him with pride.

"When I was on my way out later, one of the wives had a pickup full of Gatorade and water and brought pizza down there. Just watching the whole Blue Creek and Pryor communities come together. I think every ranch that was out there sent every worker, every farm hand or ranch cowboy they had was headed that way to do what they could. It was pretty amazing,” O'Donnell said. "Just amazing to watch neighbor helping neighbor and them come together as a combined force. No questions asked, without even asking for help, they all responded and got out there and got it done."

Kukowski finds comfort in this as he looks to the future to rebuild.

“We just thank everybody and thank God," Kukowski said. "And we hope Mother Nature can control herself next time."

To learn more about the fire, click here.