July 4 is one of the busiest in firefighting. July 4 2008 was no different in Billings Montana.
It was the third fire in the same area outside of Billings, Montana. The others had taken hours to put out. No homes had been threatened by the first two, but the first 15, then 45 acres of brush and woodland had been affected.
This one was different. The fire raged toward a residential area. 40 residents were ordered out of their homes to safety as firefighters battled the blaze. Others couldn't be reached right away for evacuation because their phones were out. Police raced ahead of the flames to get word to residents to clear out.
The fire had begun a little after 2:30 in the afternoon. Fire Departments from Columbus, Absarokee and Red Lodge joined with the Billings department. In all 12 agencies joined in. The battle turned around 7 that evening. They fought the blaze through the night.
The homes were saved and nobody was hurt or killed. About 1100 acres of brush and woods damaged. Trees and ground cover were scorched. The fire chief put it into perspective. “The priority that we have is protecting life. Protecting property is second, protecting open space is third,” he said.
Much of the open space he was talking about belonged to one of the corporations owned by local Congressman Denny Rehberg, a Republican who had had a contentious relationship with local authorities in the past. After an investigation into alcohol use after a boat crash, another Republican representative on the boat with Rehberg was charged. Rehberg is, perhaps, best known for his watchdog efforts, making sure hungry school children don't eat breakfast unless they qualify.
The 40 home owners who had almost lost their property were grateful to the fire departments and the firefighters who had battled through that dangerous night. Congressman Rehberg sued.
The outcry that came out of that lawsuit was irritating to the Congressman. He reacted through his lawyer.
We’re going to prove our case; that’s our obligation. I’m tired of this fire chief and this city administrator going to the press and spewing their stuff.
But the case was postponed until after last year's election. Legal maneuvers also delayed the drunken boating trial of the Congressman's friend. He was sentenced later.
Rehberg visited a fire fighter's convention before the election and explained that the legal action was never about them. He just had to meet a legal deadline imposed by a statute of limitations. Otherwise he would be unable to sue their department at all.
Eventually, Rehberg dropped the suit over the scorched brush and trees on his open land corporate property.
Now everyone is friends again.
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