On May 2, 2023, MRL #127 crosses the pile trestle #6 along Antelope Creek. This structure was threatened by fire shortly after the train cleared the area.
Montana Rail Link's Harrison Local operates on Northern Pacific's former Red Bluff Branch, a line in south-central Montana. The branch was completed by the NP in 1890, and although the terminal parts of the original line have been removed, a 28.7 mile section of original right-of-way remains in service as MRL's Harrison branch. Operations on this line have some distinctive features. Due to weight restrictions on the pile trestles, the Harrison Local breaks up the locomotive consist mid-trip to lighten the rail loading. One unit is set out at Sappington, MT, and the train covers the distal 9.5 miles of the branch with a single GP9.
On May 2nd, GP9 #127 was laboring to bring four cars up the grade into Harrison, and a friend and I photographed the train as it moved through the coulee (see the image at the top of this blog). As we leap-frogged to a new photography sites, plumes of hot smoke began to thicken in the background. It was an ominous tell.
We flagged the train to a stop on a dirt road crossing to alert the crew of a right-of-way fire and allow them to initiate whatever protocols the railroad may have. Then, we called the county fire department. However, we know what it means to live in the rural parts of the dry west, and so we drove back to the site of the fire to see what else could be done. The fire was unattended and low-burning but dramatically growing. It was clear the situation had a vector: shit was about to get real on the Harrison branch.
The problem was that there was little that we could do with just our hands and our cameras. The fire was burning hot enough that trees and brush would erupt in flame when met in the path, and these flames would leap ten to twelve feet in the air above the burn source. With tremendous apprehension, we watched as the fire moved into the low areas leading toward the trestle. We started having conversations about what would happen when the fire met the brush and trees there: how quickly would it advance? Was the trestle in the path? As the fire began to build, an inevitability seemed to take shape. And, we started counting down.
That is, until a lone rancher careened over county pavement in a beat-up red Chevy--as if he were the only person on the highway. (And between the three of us, we probably were.)
God bless the cavalry.
In the back of his truck, he had a mud flap attached to a long wooden handle, like a giant, rubber fly swatter. It was clearly homemade--the kind of tool crafted out of some previous necessity. Without any acknowledgment whatsoever, the rancher scurried up the cut, bound over the barbed wire fence, and disappeared. I ran to his truck, pulled a shovel from the bed and breathlessly joined him at the front of the fire. He was concerned about losing his grazing pastures; I was concerned about the trestle. Together, we went to work on the source of both of our problems.
By this time, the fire had grown to something bigger than what we could contain through our own efforts. But, we were able to occlude its advancement where it was crucial to do so. As you can see from the set of photos at the bottom of this blog, this was about 20 feet (or so) from brush that would have served as a heavier fuel for combustion. The trestle is 105 ft. from this zone (as measured from Google Earth).
So long as the fire was in the shorter grasses, it was low and approachable, and it didn't take a lot to arrest. That said, it did take something: a Montana rancher with a rubber fire-swatter and a Wyoming train guy with a borrowed manure shovel. However, we were on the cusp of having things really get away from us. There is only so much dirt a person can throw, and the giant rubber flap was only affective against a low ground fire. Had the rancher arrived even minutes later, it may have been too late for the trestle.
Shortly after the immediate threats were allayed, the fire department started to show up. They had off-road water trucks, and they drove straight down the tracks and men fanned into the bush to quell the hotter burn areas. A this point, I didn't bring value to the effort, and so we drove back into Harrison where, once again, we flagged the train to a stop--now on its way back to Sappington. We alerted the MRL crew that there were men and emergency vehicles on the tracks ahead.
Job done; my lungs were choked with smoke.
Blaine Hadfield mops up some of the last hotspots of the fire.
When I launched Arrowhead Models, I did so with the language that we view our work "as an act of preservation." And in this case, our efforts may have literally been an act of preservation. These old pile trestles were once as common as the ravines they crossed. Now, the image of a GP9 crossing a pile trestle feels bucolic. I am really pleased that the Harrison branch didn't lose one on our watch.
Of railroads that I have spent time to photograph, the Montana Rail Link is among the most friendly. For railfans, that doesn't mean that there aren't boundaries--there are, and those boundaries needs to be respected. But, I have never met an MRL employee who attempted to flex on a railfan just for taking an interest in the railroad, and opportunities abound. Since MRL's closure announcement, troupes of railfans descend en mass to experience the last months of a proud railroad.
Perhaps, we did our part to look out for MRL's interests as well.
If our efforts were good for the MRL, then to the Montana Rail Link and to your people, we raise our glass. We know what the future has in store for you, and blue units through Montana are not to be taken for granted.
The fire is extinguished, and the Harrison Local ambles past the remaining fire crews who have cleared their hoses and equipment from the right-of-way.
MRL #127 crosses the pile trestle #6 on its return from Harrison, MT. If the fire entered the gully, the concern was that denser brush would provide the conditions to engulf the structure.