BROWNING, Mont. – A pair of rare winter wildfires fueled by 60-mph gusts burned buildings and forced hundreds from their homes overnight on Montana's Blackfeet Indian Reservation, but better weather conditions on Thursday helped firefighters get a handle on the blazes.
The grass fires started around sundown Wednesday and together grew to 16,000 acres by early Thursday, said tribal spokesman Wayne Smith. At least 300 people were evacuated from homes and a boarding school, though no injuries had been reported.
"It's probably the biggest grass fire in reservation history," Smith said. "It was just a wall of fire heading east."
Smith estimated between 10 and 15 buildings were damaged or destroyed on the northwestern Montana reservation east of Glacier National Park. Fire incident commander Robert LaPlant confirmed Thursday evening that one home had been destroyed but did not yet know the total number of structures damaged.
J.R. Clark, a rancher who lives off Boarding School Road north of Browning, the site of the larger fire, said he and a hired hand ignored the mandatory evacuation order and stayed to fight the blaze.
"I said, `You're going to have to throw me in jail because I'm not leaving,"' Clark said. "I had to save my ranch."
The two of them used a tractor with an attached plow to attack the fire as it approached the main house. After working from 6 p.m. until 3 a.m., the danger had passed. They were able to save Clark's house and another one across the highway, but a neighbor's house was destroyed, as was one of Clark's barns.
"It came up and jumped out of the river and down the hill and burned it down. There was nothing anybody could do to stop it," Clark said.
Residents of Browning, the reservation's largest city, said the fires illuminated the sky and created a chaotic scene as the city's streets were flooded with emergency vehicles and people unsure of what was happening.
"You could see flames all around on the east side of Browning, they were very clear and bright," said resident Gabe Renville. "It was chaos. It was a danger to be out. There was traffic and flashing lights and I was afraid somebody was going to get run over."
Gusting wind blew the fires east, away from Browning. Rain fell at 5 a.m., followed by a snow flurry around noon, helping crews gain the upper hand. The fires had not grown any larger and were 85 percent contained by Thursday afternoon, LaPlant said.
At least 80 firefighters and volunteers from the tribe, neighboring counties and several federal agencies responded, fire manager Tyson Runningwolf said. They were assisted by farmers and ranchers like Clark whose land stood in the path of the fires.
Most of the firefighters were going to be pulled off duty Thursday night and resume the mop-up the next morning, LaPlant said.
Crews were helped by Thursday's weather conditions, as the wind died down to 15 mph and a cold front raised the relative humidity to 70 percent, said National Weather Service Meteorologist Ben Schott.
One fire, called the Y-fire, started southeast of Browning, has scorched at least 12,000 acres, Smith said. Another blaze called the Boy Fire erupted north of Browning around the same time, burning at least 6,000 acres.
The Boy Fire was likely caused by a power line that was downed by the wind, said Glacier Electric Cooperative Inc. communications manager Virginia Harman. Utility crews checked the site and the fire appears to have started where the line touched the ground, she said.
The origin of the Y-fire, however, is nowhere near the utility's equipment, she said.
"We don't believe that one was caused by us or our systems," Harman said.
Fire officials were investigating the cause of the fires, but there has been no preliminary determination, Smith said.
About 200 residents and students were evacuated from the Boarding School Road area, where there is a boarding school, while another 100 people from two Hutterite communities were evacuated to the Cut Bank Civic Center about 35 miles east of Browning.
Renville said his 12-year-old daughter, who attends the school, sent him a text message at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday saying there was a fire near the school. Buses were sent and the school's staff used their personal vehicles to evacuate more than 60 students and bring them to the Blackfeet tribal offices in Browning, where their parents picked them up, Renville said.
The Hutterites arrived in Cut Bank about 9:30 p.m. Wednesday and remained until after 1 a.m., when U.S. Highway 2 reopened, said Jennifer Biegler, Cut Bank's parks and recreation director. Volunteers and local officials brought blankets, food, water and coffee for the evacuees.
"They were hungry and worried and nervous and anxious," Biegler said.
Evacuation orders have been lifted for the Seville and Hidden Lake Hutterite colonies, KSEN-AM in Shelby reported. U.S. 2 was re-closed to through traffic between Cut Bank and Browning Thursday morning, the radio station reported.
There have not been any further evacuations, Smith said.