Dozens of firefighters were conducting mop-up operations on January 5 after two massive wildfires blazed for more than 15 hours through thousands of acres in Blackfeet Nation territory, destroying homes and scorching agricultural land on one of the less prosperous reservations in the country.
There were no deaths or injuries, Wayne Smith, the Blackfeet Nation’s director of communications, said. By midday Thursday, Blackfeet firefighters joined by emergency personnel from the area surrounding Browning had contained more than 85 percent of the fire. It took massive numbers of people and resources to quell the blaze in less than 24 hours. “There were close to 85 emergency personnel on the fire, as well as 25 engines, 15 water tanks and a number of other kinds of heavy equipment, including graders,” Smith said. “The fire was spreading really quickly. We had 30-40 mph winds with 60 mph gusts and some places reported higher than 60–70 mph gusts.”
Early reports said that up to seven fires had erupted outside of the city of Browning. The Blackfeet Nation opened its main Tribal Business Office Wednesday night for those in need of emergency shelter, Smith said. KRTV News reported that Shannon Augare, a Montana State Senator from Browning, posted on his Twitter account Wednesday night that “several families, including mine have evacuated from our homes in Blackfeet Country. An estimated 5 massive fires are in progress. Local police, fire and EMS crews are everywhere. Responding where they are able to. Please keep these individuals in your prayers.” Augare told people that the situation was “very scary” and advised them to stay indoors unless they were directly threatened.
Emergency personnel ended up battling two massive blazes dubbed the Boy Fire and the Y Fire, which erupted around 5 p.m. on Wednesday, January 4. The Boy Fire north of Browning burned through approximately 12,000 acres and the Y Fire south of the city destroyed around 6,000 acres, including homes, barns and other structures, Smith said.
Around 200 people were evacuated from the Indian Boarding School, including the students and residents from around a dozen nearby homes, Smith said. The students were evacuated within 20 minutes after the fire was reported, and brought to the Blackfeet Tribal Administration office. Parents were notified to pick up their children there, said Smith.
Already an economically depressed area – tribal members received a $75 Christmas per capita payment – tribal council members met throughout the day on Thursday to plan for dealing with the disaster. “Right now the tribal council is meeting with BIA officials and the Emergency Disaster Coordinator to assess all the damage that was done by the fires,” said Mike Kittson, Blackfeet citizen and tribal council liaison. Kittson said he had seen the fire Wednesday night from his home, which is some 20 miles away from the fire. “We thought the worst,” he said. The air was dry and winds were gusting up to 70 mph, Kittson said. “We started off having a good spring but by the end of summer we were really dry. For northwest Montana we should have had a decent amount of snow by now, but we’re still struggling to see some snow.”
The Great Falls Tribune reported that the fire was caused by a downed Glacier Electric Cooperative line. Virginia Harman, manager of communications for GEC told the Tribune that the line broke at an insulator and sparked the fire at the point where the line hit the ground. She said the line was downed due to high winds and possibly debris. No poles or other GEC structures came down at the site.
Smith said that an investigation is ongoing about how many homes and other structures were destroyed and how many families have been left homeless. The Blackfeet Nation has set up a donation fund for the immediate future to help people most affected by the fire. Donations can be sent to Fire Relief and addressed to the Blackfeet Nation Tribal Headquarters, P.O. Box 850, Browning, Montana, 59417.