Burned Out 

Why are victims of the wildfires being denied federal aid?

Richard Townsend, a rancher in the Sula area, suffered a devastating loss from last summer’s wildfires. The tally: two miles of fence, 100 tons of hay, a barn, two tractors, two two-and-a-half-ton flatbed trucks, tack, tools, cattle minerals, protein blocks, corrals and 300 acres of old-growth timber.

Jerry Ehmann, another rancher from Sula, lost 130 tons of hay and 30 miles of fence.

Both ranchers, promised financial help from one of several federal agencies, did, at first, look to the feds for assistance. But the response so far has not been good; both have been turned down repeatedly by the Farm Services Agency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Small Business Association, all federal agencies.

Why? Townsend, for one, doesn’t really know. “I just keep filling out forms,” he says.

The lack of federal assistance for burned-out farmers and ranchers in Ravalli County has been puzzling. Ask around in the Bitterroot and you’ll find that no one knows anyone who has received financial help for agricultural losses.

Terry Streit is the director of the Farm Services Agency in Hamilton. Streit is so upset at her agency’s inability to help Bitterroot Valley farmers and ranchers one can hear the stress in her voice. Streit says she’s worked tirelessly to find money for the people who come to her office and share stories of loss and devastation that just “break my heart.”

So far, Streit has been able to round up a grand total of $20,000 in federal funds. “What am I going to do with that?” she asks, incredulously.

For farmers and ranchers the Bitterroot’s fire season began with desiccating winds, heat, humidity in the single digits and precipitation that was 17 percent of the 30-year historical average, Streit says. Ag producers were already feeling the pinch before the first lightning strike in mid-July. Throw a 375,000-acre wildfire into that mix and what you get is agricultural catastrophe. Some ranchers could not put their cattle onto their grazing allotments either because of fire or because there was no grass to graze. Others lost last summer’s hay crop to fire and this summer’s to a combination of drought and fire.

Ehmann’s fence losses alone are a major concern. “I think the worst damage we had is miles and miles and miles of drift fence that got destroyed. I don’t know how we’re going to manage the cows next year without the fences. I’m talking 30 miles of fence.”

Ehmann has applied for federal assistance, but when asked what kind of help he’s received he just laughs. The short answer is none.

There is now a glut of cattle on the market, not much hay, miles of fence gone, corrals gone, barns gone and no assistance from the federal government, Streit says.

“We can’t figure it out,” she says. “It’s like we have leprosy or something. They just won’t touch us.”

That should change, however, with the recent passage of the 2001 appropriations bill. Bruce Nelson, state executive director of the Farm Services Agency in Bozeman, says the Farm Services Agency was out of funds at the national level just when Bitterroot farmers and ranchers needed help the most. The 2001 bill, just signed by President Bill Clinton, includes $80 million for emergency agricultural relief. Farmers and ranchers who lost crops, forage, livestock, irrigation equipment—virtually anything to do with agriculture—will be eligible for government loans. Nelson anticipates that every agricultural producer in Ravalli County will receive some payment for losses they suffered in either the drought or the fires.

Streit says so far she has been able to find help for only “one or two people” affected by the drought, but nothing for those impacted by fire. “I’m really disappointed,” she says in a tear-filled voice. “I’m so disappointed I’m considering quitting working for the government.”

Townsend, despite getting the bureaucratic run-around, has not been completely on his own. After the fires, truck- and carloads of Mennonite farmers from Idaho and Washington showed up on his land to help rebuild fences and work on other rehabilitation projects. He also received a $250 donation from the Salvation Army, and got rehab help from 20 high school students, courtesy of the Bitterroot Interagency Recovery Team, a local effort trying to create “one-stop shopping” for people who were affected by the fires and who need assistance.

Both Ehmann and Townsend sound frustrated when they talk about their trip on the federal merry-go-round. And it’s no wonder. Numerous calls to the state Disaster and Emergency Services Department, Rep. Rick Hill’s office and the Farm Services Agency in Bozeman result in answers along the lines of, “We don’t administer that program,” or “Money should be forthcoming.”

An aide to Hill says that Ravalli County has, indeed, been a “problem,” when it comes to getting the money distributed, adding that all the federal emergency relief money should already have been distributed there.

Townsend thinks he has a better idea for federal employees in the business of handing out disaster funds. When the fires were quenched a busload of disaster relief officials arrived at his ranch, looked around, then left. If they show up again, he says, he’ll give them all seed-spreaders and put them to work.

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