Montana bull riders feel for their state as wildfires rage on

Jess Lockwood is trying to become the youngest PBR World Champion. Photo: Andy Watson /


  • Jess Lockwood almost didn't compete in Thackerville, Oklahoma, as his family's ranch was in danger because of the Sartin Draw wildfire in Montana.
  • Montana has had over 40 wildfires this summer consume over half a million acres of land.
  • Lockwood's ranch in Volborg, Montana, was eventually able to withstand any damage as crews kept the fire from hitting the family's property.

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DALLAS – Jess Lockwood was immediately concerned when he was gently awoken by his mother on Friday morning in Billings, Montana.

Angie had tears in her eyes.

“I was scared,” Jess explained. “She woke me up and she was crying. She said, ‘I have to go home. The fire is within 8-10 miles of the house. We have to start packing things up.’”

The Sartin Draw Fire is one of over 40 wildfires that have raged across Lockwood’s home state of Montana this summer. Over half a million acres have been burned in Montana as of Monday morning, and the Lockwood’s family ranch in Volborg, Montana, was close to danger’s way prior to this weekend’s WinStar World Casino & Resort Invitational in Thackerville, Oklahoma.

The No. 3 bull rider in the world standings said on Friday morning the Sartin Draw Fire came within 10 miles of his home before crews were able to cut the fire off and prevent it from crossing a road toward the Lockwood’s ranch.

“It was headed straight down to us south,” Lockwood said. “Heck, right at that point it was 80,000 acres big and 36 miles long. It was just moving right toward us.”

The Lockwoods weren’t sure if crews would be able to contain the fire before their home was in danger, so they began to take precautions and started to fill up their horse trailers living quarters with important documents, sentimental items and as many valuables and irreplaceable things they could fit inside.

Jess, though, felt helpless as he sat at Billings Logan International Airport waiting for his flight to Dallas for this weekend’s Built Ford Tough Series event.

His family was placing all of his PBR belt buckles, Calgary Stampede bronzes, baby pictures and other personal items in the trailer for him.

“I was sitting at the airport and it was getting real close,” Lockwood said. “I told mom, ‘Keep me posted and if it is still going when my flight is supposed to leave, I am not getting on and I am coming home.’

“She was freaking out and said that there was nothing I can do. I felt I could help pack up stuff, make it faster and just be a family.”

Angie insisted that Jess go compete this weekend, which he did, but Jess didn’t see how he could go to Thackerville and ride knowing the family house may burn down.

“Hell, I am sitting in the airport for two hours thinking if our 10,000-acre ranch burns up, we have nothing,” Lockwood said. “I don’t even know where the hell we would start. Yeah, you have insurance, but you don’t have anything after. Sure, you can build a new house and build new barns, but it is not your place.”

Within 30 minutes before his flight was scheduled to leave on Friday afternoon, Jess got the call that the fire had been contained on their end and that their ranch should be OK.

“It didn’t get on to any of our land, luckily,” he said. “It was across the road five or 10 miles. They got it put out on our end, but it is still going the other way.”

According to InciWeb, the national wildfire information service, the Sartin Draw Fire was 85 percent contained as of Monday morning and had affected 99,735 acres.

Lockwood is extremely thankful for the firefighters and volunteers that have been putting endless hours in to try and protect Montana residents’ homes, land and wildlife.

InciWeb lists 227 total personnel battling the Sartin Draw Fire. There have been 20 engines, five crews, 11 heavy equipment and one helicopter fighting the fire.

However, Lockwood, who finished this weekend’s 15/15 Bucking Battle in fourth place, is aware Montana needs more help, resources and volunteers with such dire conditions facing the state.

“There are fires everywhere,” Lockwood said. “The whole damn state is burning up. They said it so dry, and there is no chance of rain enough to do anything. The only chance to help put it out is an early snow in November.”

Fellow Montana bull rider Matt Triplett voiced his call to action on social media last week before a concussion in Thackerville thwarted his efforts of donating half his winnings to relief efforts.

Triplett grew up in Columbia Falls, Montana, and is currently living in Kalispell with fellow Montana bull rider Nevada Newman.

As of now, the fires haven’t affected him directly, but Triplett said it has been heartbreaking this week seeing his state go up in flames after a series of thunderstorms went through the area on Thursday night, adding to an already tough wildfire season throughout the state this summer.

“Any kind of help we can get is huge,” Triplett said. “Anywhere. Any life crisis, things that happen, anything helps. There has always been fires (growing up), but it has never been like this. There have been some pretty good ones, but nothing this huge.”

Triplett finished in third-place at the Real Time Pain Relief Velocity Tour event on Aug. 26 in Eureka, Montana, and said you could see and smell smoke throughout the bull riding.

The 26-year-old hopes the country’s recent volunteer efforts in the Houston area following the devastation of Hurricane Harvey will continue to inspire others. Triplett understands the scale of destruction and need is very, very different between the two natural disasters, but he hopes people can continue coming together in times of need all across the United States.

“With all that happened in the world recently and the support being shown, I want Montana to get support because we are dealing with a crisis,” Triplett said. “Usually we can handle the fires and contain them, but they are going wild right now.” 

Follow Justin Felisko on Twitter @jfelisko

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