Facing the Heat: Firefighting in the Beartooths

Thursday, October 18, 2018
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Last month CCN showed Trent Emineth, of RLFR, climbing up the mountain with a hose.

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Photo by Eleanor Guerrero

Local firefighters, like Trent Emineth of RLFR, confront wildland and structure fires armed with heavy training and experience.   

By Eleanor Guerrero

CCN Senior Reporter


October 29, 1804, William Clark. “The Prarie got on fire and went with Such Violenc & Speed as to Catch a man & woman & burn them to Death, Several escapd. among other a Small boy who was Saved by getting under a green Buffalow skin.”


A fire in the wilderness brings a challenge to every firefighter. The open spaces include fast burning prairies and rugged, steep sloped mountains that can channel fire down valleys like a blowtorch. 

In the Beartooths, Red Lodge has its share of wildland fires as well as structure fires. To fight such blazes, firefighters need unique skills and lots of training. Instead of fleeing, they bravely walk towards fire. Like most rural areas, Red Lodge Fire and Rescue (RLFR) firefighters are unpaid volunteers.

A firefighter is usually your local neighbor and businessman, like Trent Emineth, owner of Coffee Roasters, on Broadway. 

Emineth has been a fireman since he came to Red Lodge about 16 years ago. Emineth and his wife, Tracy, live in Red Lodge and have four children, 2 boys and 2 girls, aged 7-14. He shared some stories.

Emineth was always interested in firefighting. “I just stuck with it.” He likes the science of firefighting. As a boy, “I liked building campfires.” 

He says, “I volunteer because it’s something I can do to help the community. If no one shows up, what are you going to do?”

It’s also in his blood. “My uncle was a firefighter in Laurel and my dad volunteers.”

He says, “As a business owner, I want to help the people I serve everyday. If you go to a car accident or a fire at somebody’s house, you can relate. You know their name. There’s something comforting if you know someone.”

Some images are burned in his memory. Prairie fires are fast. “You walk through the field, it’s all burnt and there are dead mice everywhere.”

There was a wildfire flare up last month about ten miles south of town in the Beartooths by Beartrack Trail. This season, he says, “typically, we’ve had some small ones but we’ve been pretty good about getting it done. 

Ideally, as for this last fire, “we put a line around the whole fire.” “Line” is literal, consisting of a series of 100-foot hoses connected. Every 2 or 300 hundred feet a “Y” joint is added enabling a hose to be run off so a firefighter can fight fire at that point. 

Emineth’s job was to secure the safe route out of the ongoing fire. 

He was photographed by CCN climbing half way up the mountain with a hose. “This was our safe route out. I put out the fire so they could get out. The fire’s traveling one way so we make sure we have a safety zone.”

He said, “If the fire blows up we always have a safe place to go back to. Meanwhile the guys in front of me are laying out hose." 

"We’ll surround it but the interior could also be hot. We also go in. We call it, ‘going into black. You’re usually fighting from the black.’” 

The black is the burned area. “We’ll go in ten feet to make sure there’s nothing burning in that ten feet and that’s how we make our perimeter. You’re on the line but one foot is in the black,” said Emineth.

With some fires, you can’t build that line. Asked if he was as determined to put it out as he appeared at Beartrack, he smiled, “Yeah, it’s basically, going with it. The conditions were right that we were able to catch it. If we had gotten a really high wind or it had been a month earlier, man, it would have been too far in front of us.”  

“The key is really trusting that each firefighter is doing his job. Our commander comes up with a plan and trusts us to go do it. And we go do it.”

The most intense fire he’s experienced was the one at Stillwater County. On Aug. 29, 2006, the Derby Fire exploded overnight doubling to 40,000 acres. Highway 90 was closed between Livingston and Columbus. The fire ended after consuming more than 207,000 acres. Though late in the season, a lightning strike came with devastating winds. 

“That was just insane,” recalled Emineth. “We were fighting fire along the interstate in Reed Point. Putting out fires along the highway. They mobilized our team and told us to go down the Stillwater Valley. It was quite a ways from us.” It was suspected the fire was spreading. 

“We were one of the first trucks to go in. It was just decimated. They were giving us addresses to check out and there were just chimneys.”

Wildland fires are usually fought more defensively than structure fires. 

Emineth explained. “We’re not quite in it. We’re not trying to be right in the smoke. We have goggles we can wear-My problem is smoke makes my eyes water.”  

RLFR does a county wildland training each spring, usually with BLM out of Billings and the USFS. It’s a refresher course or basics for new people. Training takes place in the field with 10 or 15 scenarios. 

“Part of it is getting into our shelters," said Emineth. Takes about 30 seconds. It’s in a pack with handles; you just pull it out and it’s ready to go. It’s a reflective cocoon. It’s all about safety.”

Like Clark’s little boy under the buffalo robe, he said, “It’s the last case scenario.” He’s never had to use it.

The July, 2008, Cascade Fire had attributes similar to the wind driven Derby Fire. It blew down drainages and traveled to within 6 miles of Red Lodge. “Getting in and out was pretty intense. Just the way that was coming down the canyon. It was also a big time of year." Red Lodge Mountain utilized its snow-making machine to wet the slopes down as it approached. 

The end of season does not guarantee the end of fires. “We had the Turkey Fire at Thanksgiving,” Emineth recalled. “It started by Point of Rocks and spread to Meeteetse. There was a lot of wind.”

Training also includes annual first aid updates and hazardous materials.

He noted, “The basics of firefighting-the different ways-change. It used to be all water, now we’ve pushed over to foam.” The foam/water mix enables them to reach 4 times the area and it suffocates the fire. 

“In rural situations where we haul our water outside of town it really makes a difference in trying to knock down a fire fast. Most towns have foam capability. All environmentally friendly.” 

Structure fires and wildland fires have different equipment.

For structure fires, “We have our structure trucks. We shift the engines to the pumps and they don’t move.”

“Here we have tenders-three big tenders, each haul 2500 gallons of water. That’s a lot of our rural water. We use them for wildland or structure fires that we need to haul water to. We have capability to pull up to a hydrant or drop pumps by a creek and suck water out. Wherever we can find water.” 

Structure gear is “more insulated, more rated, and heavier.”  They have SCBA’s (Self Contained Breathing Apparatus) on all structure trucks. In a house fire, “everything’s made out of plastic; it’s all toxins.” The helmet is extended so water rolls off and your neck is protected.

Emineth said the wildland helmet is “more like a safety helmet you’d see on a construction site.” The main problem is falling trees. 

RLFR have saved a lot of property and animals, especially fenced animals. “Like cows, they’re bunched up in a corner. We just cut the fence.”

Emineth reflects that he never knows how people rescued fare or what started a fire. “You go and do your job.”

In Red Lodge there are about 35-40 volunteers. “Well trained guys and gals,” he said and praised their comradeship. They include “plumbers, electricians…a lot of small business owners.” 

He said, “I like being able to know that if someone needs help I can help them. I think that’s why a lot of people are volunteers for FR, Search and Rescue or EMS-you get that feeling from each of them. They want to protect our community.”

Training continues all year. “It’s not just going to calls. A lot of it is looking at a scene and knowing what to do. Not being frozen.”

They leave deep country fires to the USFS. They work closely with the BLM and the FS. 

He said, “Typically the FS has two staffed engines here, which is huge.” 

RLFR does mutual aid with county towns as well as Columbus and Absarokee. 

Being a volunteer has “been a great way to make friends, to get to know a community of different people from us and our families,” said Emineth.  

His wife Tracy said, “I like it. It’s a great organization.” She doesn’t worry. “Safety is their number one priority.”

“Yeah, you’ve got to come home,” said Emineth. 


Upcoming Events

  • Friday, August 23, 2019 - 7:00pm
    Rock Creek Group meets Tuesdays and Saturdays at 8 a.m. and Wednesdays and Fridays at 7 p.m. at Calvary Church, 9 N Villard, Red Lodge.
  • Monday, August 26, 2019 - 7:00pm
    Joliet Group meets at the Community Center Monday at 7 p.m.
  • Tuesday, August 27, 2019 - 7:00pm
    Now Group meets at the Bridger United Methodist Church, 222 W. Broadway (west entrance of church) Tuesday at 7 p.m.
  • Thursday, August 29, 2019 - 7:00pm
    Meets every Thursday, 7 p.m. – 8 p.m. at the Red Lodge Area Community Foundation, 122 S. Hauser. It is open to all. 425- 1755.
  • Thursday, August 29, 2019 - 7:00pm
    Clarks Fork Group meets at St. Joseph’s Catholic Hall, north end of Montana Avenue, Thursday at 7 p.m.
  • Friday, August 30, 2019 - 7:00pm
    Rock Creek Group meets Tuesdays and Saturdays at 8 a.m. and Wednesdays and Fridays at 7 p.m. at Calvary Church, 9 N Villard, Red Lodge.

The Carbon County News

Street Address:

11 N. Broadway, Red Lodge, MT 59068

Mailing Address:

P.O. Box 970, Red Lodge, MT 59068

Phone: 406-446-2222

Fax: 406-446-2225

Toll-Free: 800-735-8843

Open: Monday-Friday, from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.