SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – Nathan Schaper looked outside his family’s kitchen window of their Grassy Butte, North Dakota, ranch and could see the flames burning and the smoke billowing in the distance.
It was September 2012 when a wildfire in the Badlands just north of Grassy Butte was creeping toward the Schaper ranch.
A man with the confidence to climb on top of an 1,800-pound bull very rarely uses the word scared, but Schaper admittedly called that late September fire one of the scarier moments in his life as he and the rest of the volunteer firefighters of the Grassy Butte Rural Fire Department headed out to try and contain the blaze until reinforcements from Montana and the Forest Service could arrive.
“There is nothing scarier like that when there is a huge fire coming right at you,” Schaper recalled. “The scariest part about it, it was coming right toward our ranch and we had to get around it and just kind of wait for it to come closer to us until we could do anything because it was coming through the Badlands.”
The Grassy Butte Rural Fire Department was founded in the early 1980s by a group of ranchers, including Nathan’s father, Tim, as a way to respond to brush fires and other incidences near their properties. Prior to the department, each allotment in Grassy Butte was given a fire fighting skid unit that held around 300 gallons of water that could be placed in pickup trucks.
Tim, who bought his land in 1979, and the other property owners decided that it would be a good idea for the neighbors to bond together and have a concerted effort in place to fight brush fires whenever needed.
The fire department has continued to grow ever since, and a new generation of volunteers has become involved in protecting the local community.
Tim said the Grassy Butte Rural Fire Department can get a head start on fires, instead of relying on the Watford City Fire Department to the north.
“The people are there, so we can respond so much faster when it starts,” Tim said. “That is the whole thing. You are trying to protect your house and everything else and your property.”
During the September 2012 fire, Tim was using a Caterpillar loader to help clear trails and access points for the regional firefighters, while Nathan’s mother, Julie, and sister, Hailey, were on horseback trying to gather the family’s cattle in case the fire crept any closer to their ranch.
Nathan was also helping trying to build containment walls and put out hotspots with other volunteers – seeing as a large portion of the fire was burning in an inaccessible territory.
“We stayed up most of the night watching it, but the next morning we went in with backpacks and did whatever we could do to put out some of the hot spots,” Nathan said.
Nathan’s childhood friend and neighbor Abe Dillman remembers taking shifts sleeping at night in the back of the volunteers’ pickup trucks. Dillman, also a bull rider, actually withdrew from a rodeo to come home and fight the fire.
Schaper was not riding at the time and was recovering from a torn bicep muscle that he sustained at the 2012 BFTS event in Nampa, Idaho.
“If you are young and able to work, everybody pitched in,” Dillman said. “We were all brought up to give a helping hand. If you help me, I will help you. That is how we were all raised.”
The fire was eventually contained in the coming days and, according to Tim, it got within a quarter mile of the Schaper’s deeded-land and burned close to 800 acres in western North Dakota.
It was a close call avoided thanks to many, including the Grassy Butte Rural Fire Department.
Nathan has been on the department’s board of directors for three years after first volunteering at 18 years old and said it is civil responsibility for everyone in the community.
“To me, it is not really that big of a deal,” the 24-year-old said. “It is kind of your duty. If there is a fire, you are going to put it out. If your phone (rings), you drop everything you are doing and you go.”
Tim added, “It is great to see him interested in getting involved. He stepped in and wanted to be one of the directors of the fire department. A lot of us that started it are stepping back and letting the next generation take over.”
Nathan’s only regret is that he isn’t available more because of his Built Ford Tough Series career – he is one of two North Dakota bull riders (Stetson Lawrence) in the draw for this weekend’s First PREMIER Bank PREMIER BankCard Invitational in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
He heads into the event as the No. 10 bull rider in the world standings with a career-high 44.83 percent riding average.
Grassy Butte is a tiny community with an estimated population of nearly 200 and was home to 1957 saddle bronc World Champion Alvin Nelson, who passed away last December at 80 years old.
“The town I grew up in means a lot to me,” Nathan said. “I love that area and Grassy Butte. The hardest part is just not being able to help out enough because I am so busy with other stuff. I would like to help out more.”
Dillman said Nathan has become one of the small community’s most popular residents and that his buddy is always being congratulated or pulled aside at the Long X Saloon – the only bar in town.
“He has nothing but 110 percent of this community behind him,” Dillman said. “He is definitely one of the bigger names to come out of the community.”
Nathan made the 8-hour drive from Grassy Butte to Sioux Falls earlier this week to take part in a series of public appearances in South Dakota. He is expecting roughly 20 family members to be in attendance at the Denny Sanford PREMIER Center.
“They are pretty excited,” Nathan said. “It is always nice competing some place close that feels like home, even if it is South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota or Montana.”
No matter what though, Grassy Butte will always be the definition of home to Schaper.
“They all support me and we know each other so good,” Schaper concluded. “I just enjoy being a part of the community and helping out as much as I can.
“I love the people and I love the area.”
Follow Justin Felisko on Twitter @jfelisko
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