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A Nisland ranch family lost more than 300 ewes and yearling sheep when fire engulfed their lambing sheds early on Jan. 3.

According to Stan Lewis, chief of Nisland-Arpan Volunteer Fire & Rescue, the fire was reported at 12:05 a.m. at the James Mickelson ranch, located two miles east of Nisland on Highway 212.

By the time firefighters arrived, Lewis said, the sheds, consisting of an older barn immediately adjacent to a newer structure, were fully involved in flames and nothing could be done to rescue the animals. The timing and the ferocity of the blaze contributed to the heavy losses.

“It burned fast, at a bad time. Nobody happened to be up. It was a bad situation,” he said. “We kept the fire from spreading, but the barns were a total loss.”

Ironically, all ewes and yearlings were in the sheds to protect them from the cold.

“It’s the lambing season and they were all locked in, so the babies would be born under protection,” he said.

Another nearby barn was saved. A number of buck sheep (males) were not in the shed and were spared, he said.

Lewis said volunteer fire departments from Newell, Vale and Belle Fourche also provided mutual aid, with brush trucks, pumpers and tenders providing water.

“That’s what we’re used to,” Lewis said. “In rural areas water is a limited deal.”

About 18 firefighters were on scene controlling the blaze and preventing its spread to other buildings until about 4 a.m., he said.

Weather aided firefighting efforts, with little or no wind to push the flames. No injuries were reported among firefighters, he said.

Lewis said a preliminary investigation indicated an electrical malfunction as a probable cause.

Messages left with the Mickelson family for comment were not returned by news deadline.

However, Journal files indicate the family ranch also suffered the loss of more than 30 sheep in a July 2015 hailstorm that swept through Butte County.

“These guys are my neighbors,” Lewis said. “We suffer alongside everybody else. We’re all livestock producers.”

Lewis, who also raises sheep, remembers other lambing shed fires with significant loss of livestock, but he doesn’t recall a loss of this magnitude.

“It was terrible,” he said.

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