For solitude and wide open spaces, Treasure County in southeastern Montana is hard to beat. Fewer than one thousand people live in this rugged part of Big Sky Country. Its sprawling grasslands are ideal ranching country, but the area is also vulnerable to fire.
Kipp Schwarzrock, the president of the Treasure County Volunteer Fire Department in Hysham, Montana, is one of the people who serves to protect the community from fires and other emergencies.
Hysham is located about an hour northeast of Billings, Montana. The small community of less than 300 people depends upon the Volunteer Fire Department as its first response unit.
“Of all the emergency calls we receive, rangeland fires are the most common,” said Schwarzrock.
Like many Volunteer Fire Departments across the United States, the men and women of the Treasure County VFD are unpaid volunteers who serve because they care about their community. President Schwarzrock is also the lead tech for Torgerson LLC, a Case and New Holland farm equipment distributor.
Schwarzrock is proud of the team of volunteers he leads.
“We all do it to give back to the community,” he says. ”Treasure County is small, we all know each other, and we all pitch in to help each other out. We’re proud of our work keeping the community safe.”
Teamwork Across Montana
Firefighting is an equipment-intensive job. The state of Montana’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, or DNRC, operates a unique system to support local fire departments like the Treasure County VFD with shared resources.
“The DNRC keeps firefighting equipment staged at locations throughout the state so that if and when a fire breaks out, there is firefighting equipment ready for the Volunteer Fire Departments to use,” Schwarzrock says. “Here at Treasure County VFD, we have a combination of county-owned equipment and DNRC-owned equipment that we use as well.”
Schwarzrock says the VFD has a total of six grass rigs, three water tenders, and a crash rig with jaws of life for highway accidents. They also rely on a 1978 Chevy fire truck to respond to house fires. “I’d like to get that situation updated,” he says.
Grass rigs are large flatbed trucks with water tanks on them for fighting rangeland fires. The water tenders are large, rolling backup tanks used to refill the grass rigs.
“Along with what we have, Billings listens to the radio when we have an emergency,” Schwarzrock says. “If they hear we need help, they’ll send out equipment to assist. We all look out for each other.”
Funding the Department
As a nonprofit, Treasure County VFD shares the same issues every volunteer fire department faces: how to keep the lights on, the equipment in working order and the firefighters safe while they work. It all requires money.
The department holds an annual fundraiser on St. Patrick’s Day, the St. Patrick’s Creme Can Cookout. The firefighters cook meals for participants as part of a fun community event that raises funds for the Department.
Support from community members and businesses, including Silverthorn Renewables, helps make the VFD’s fundraising efforts successful.
Schwarzrock says the department also applies for grants to support its funding needs. “We were awarded a Gary Sinise Foundation grant that targets underfunded volunteer fire departments,” he says. Hollywood actor Gary Sinise created the foundation to support first responders around the country. “Thanks to the grant, we were able to purchase some equipment we really need.”
Schwarzrock says he’s thankful for the many different ways the community shows support for the volunteer fire department. “The community comes to our fundraisers and shows us how much they value the work they do, like last year with the big fire.”
In 2023 a large grassland fire broke out. The Treasure County VFD handled it safely, and in so doing saved the properties of local ranchers and community members.
“One of the landowners was so appreciative of our work saving his and other folks’ land, he donated enough for us to purchase five dual-purpose turnout sets,” he says. Turnout sets are the familiar heavy-duty jackets and overalls worn by firefighters to keep them safe from burn injuries in the field. Such specialized equipment is an expensive item for a volunteer fire department to acquire without outside help.
“We’re all connected in this community, and we all care about each other. It’s a great place to live,” Schwarzrock says.