LOLO – Nearly 44,000 acres were burned in the Lolo Peak fire last year and as the fire neared homes outside of Lolo one homeowner sacrificed his own land to protect the valley.
When the flames of the Lolo Peak fire crested the hill towards US Highway 12, Joe Purcell allowed the US Forest Service to conduct a back burn on more than half of his private ranch to keep the fire at bay.
The inferno threatened to spill over the mountains and into the valley as 50 mph winds quickly pushed the flames. But with hard work and sacrifice, the Purcell Ranch was saved in late August due to an unexpected change in the winds.
Since then, Joe Purcell and his family have worked tirelessly to restore the lands, to re-open their grounds to public access. Joe and his son Brandon have been slashing, burning and digging since the embers were still warm last year.
The Purcell Ranch has been open to public recreation and hunting since they developed the property in the mid-80s. But after the fire, husks of dead trees, or tree snags litter the forest with death-traps, threatening to fall over at any moment.
The ranch was closed for general hunting season and they only allowed adults to hunt turkeys in certain areas. “It was too dangerous,” Joe Purcell recalled. “I could not forgive myself if a little guy got knocked off the map by a killer tree.”
John Salazar, a long-time friend of the Purcell family and frequent hunter on their property, saw an opportunity to give back to the family that provided so much.
Salazar is a board member of the Montana Wildlife Federation and together with Hellgate Hunters and Anglers, organized a two-day volunteer project to work on restoring 50 acres of land in the Purcell ranch.
Well over 50 volunteers were slashing and burning along Lolo Creek over the weekend on the Purcell Ranch, a 170-acre public access recreation and hunting ground.
“They could be lots of places on Memorial Day weekend,” Salazar said, “But they chose to come here and help a family who truly deserves that opportunity to be helped.”
Numerous times throughout the time I spent on the ranch, Joe Purcell would say, “this broadcast isn’t about me… it’s about them, the volunteers.”
After working alone through winter, the Purcells found respite in helping hands from across the world. During the Lolo Peak fire, wildflower seeds were sent from afar… Sweden, Alaska, Mexico.
“People from all over sent wildflowers here to say that they care about what happened to us,” Purcell said. But it wasn’t just flowers that showed up — volunteers came from all over as well, from Indiana to Washington.
Lynne Baldwin of Great Falls says she simply felt moved by a post on Facebook and saw it as an opportunity to make friends and experience the outdoors.
Whether they were young men serving community service for their Boy Scouts badge, or neighbors appreciating the selfless actions of the Purcells, the camaraderie and positivity were infectious. Or maybe it was the free beer and lunch provided by Lolo Brewing and The Notorious P.I.G.
The efficiency and determination of the volunteer force helped clear over acres of snag trees and brush so that the land can be enjoyed by recreationists and hunters once again.
Reporting by Donal Lakatua for MTN News