It’s been a hot summer across Montana, and when lightning strikes, it can become a total blaze.

That’s what happened at the Double K Ranch in Darby last week. The ranch that prides itself on its grass-fed and ranch-processed beef and pork lost what ranch co-owner and operator Dillon Kouf said is a winter’s worth of hay to feed their animals as it burned up from a lightning strike on Friday, July 28.

Kouf said the fire took out about 300 tons of recently cut hay, which is about 500 bales.

Credit: Dillon Kouf, Double K Ranch
Credit: Dillon Kouf, Double K Ranch

“That’s basically our whole winter supply,” Kouf said in a phone interview with Townsquare Media on Tuesday.

On top of the loss of food for their animals, the ranch is also looking to replace the tall fences that protected the hay from elk and deer, but not the elements above. Fire crews had to destroy the fences to attack the flames.

Beyond just a fence, the Double K Ranch wants to build an entirely new, roofed structure to protect the hay further from any future tragedies.

“The biggest thing is our ranch hands’ work and three months of watering and getting it all ready and then cutting hay and baling. It's just like three months of work up in flames for them,” Kouf said. The Double K has one ranch manager and two ranch hands.

And the damage isn’t done.

“It’s still kind of smoldering. It's just continuing to slowly burn. There's not much we can do. It burned all the hay to the point where it was unusable,” Kouf said.

Cleanup efforts will be slow-going. Since the bales were contained with twine, and twine is made of plastic, the ranch can’t spread the ash out without spreading plastic into the fields that regularly feed their livestock.

“We pretty much just have to let it all burn.”

Credit: Dillon Kouf, Double K Ranch
Credit: Dillon Kouf, Double K Ranch

Now comes the recovery

“Our goal is to sustainably raise only as many animals as the land can support. So typically all of our hay comes from our pastures,” Kouf said on the ranch’s GoFundMe page.

But this year, their hay will have to come from neighbors. The Double K Ranch has been able to secure the amount of hay they will need when winter comes, thanks to Bob Sutherlin of Sutherlin Farms in Stevensville. However, they still have to pay for it, which will amount to about $50,000, Kouf said.

While fire season still might have a lot of life left, the Double K Ranch is looking to prepare for the winter months as soon as possible. Kouf says the biggest way the community can help with the losses is to either donate to their GoFundMe or to have a burger or take home some meat from the Double K Ranch Deli.

Of the 965 wildfires recorded so far this year on the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s fire watch page, 18% of the fires were caused naturally, such as by a lightning strike, and the causes of 22% of fires have not been determined.

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