Sunny skies are finally giving the Northern Cheyenne Reservation a break from a succession of brutal snowstorms, but with most of the reservation’s residents finally able to make it out of their homes, the tribe’s fears are turning to possible flooding and dwindling fuel supplies for heat.
Bart Elliott, a Muddy Creek-area rancher and tribal member, has been one of about a dozen plow operators the tribe contracted with to remove snowdrifts as deep as 7 feet from roads. Snow was already on the ground when the first big February storm dropped around a foot of snow on the reservation.
“We kind of battle our way through that,” Elliott said Wednesday. “Then we got hit by the second storm, three or four days later, that was another 12, 14 inches, depending what part of the reservation you were in.”
Unlike the rest of Montana, he said most residents tend to be scattered throughout the rural hills, mountains and range lands that make up the reservation's more than 400,000 acres. While the state and U.S. highways that cross through the reservation were kept relatively clear, it's been a fight to keep the tribe’s road system plowed.
“We had residences out in the country that had been snowed in about nine days once we got to them,” Elliott said. “Now I know how the guys who rode into Donner Pass felt to pick up the survivors — I didn’t know if they were going to eat me or hug me.”
In some instances, he said residents had to hike down snow-drifted access roads to hitchhike into town for groceries and other supplies. One man he plowed out had carried his sick child a mile to the highway to find a ride to the local hospital.
The Northern Cheyenne Disaster and Emergency Services department received more than 800 calls for service in the past two weeks requesting emergency services, said DES Director Janis Spear.
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“I don’t even know how to describe it. It was almost like a panic, People calling and calling and calling,” Spear said. “We were having to get ambulances un-stuck so they could get to patients’ homes.”
As of Wednesday, she said most homes on the reservation had regained access to services, but her immediate concerns had shifted to whether residents have access to fuel to heat their homes. Most tribal members use wood-fired stoves to keep warm, she said.
“People aren’t able to get out to where they generally go to harvest their wood, so now, because of the amount of snow that fell, they can’t just get a shovel or a pickup plow to open the road,” she said. “It’s going to take some coordination to get these roads open to the backcountry so people can get their wood.”
For those who use gas to heat their homes, Spear added, propane companies have been unable to make deliveries to homes where the tanks remain snowed in. Because of the strings attached to federal snowplowing funds, the tribe can’t pay its contractors to dig out those private accesses, she said.
Gov. Steve Bullock on Tuesday declared an official state of emergency on three Indian Reservations and two counties in Montana, after major winter storms that pummeled the northwestern and southeastern regions of the state.
For the Northern Cheyenne, the declaration could help provide some state funding and other resources for the tribe, and for residents who are unable to return to their homes due to inaccessibility, a lack of heat or structural damage. Elliott said that several homes he helped plow out had either partially collapsed roofs or cracked sheet rock in the walls due to the stress of the heavy snow loads.
Several tribal government buildings in Lame Deer had also suffered from roof collapses or other damage, including the administrative building that houses the president’s and tribal council’s offices and the courthouse, Northern Cheyenne President Jace Killsback said.
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An emergency shelter is open in Birney, in the southern portion of the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. A second may open in the coming days in Lame Deer, said Charlie Hanson, the eastern district field officer for Montana Disaster and Emergency Services.
The state is still working to coordinate with the tribe on what resources are immediately needed, Hanson said, but the emergency declaration could allow the state to supply money and manpower for operating an additional shelter or helping to cover overtime and other expenses incurred by the tribal government.
At the very least, that could help defray the costs as the tribe wrestles with the possibility of another natural disaster around the corner. Spear said her department is already beginning to plan for the likelihood of flooding. On Wednesday, plows that had been clearing roads last weekend were beginning to push snow away from houses in low-lying areas.
“We’re happy (Bullock) made the declaration, because the impacts are tremendous,” Killsback said. “And literally, we’re not out of the water, because after the snow comes the flooding, so we’re going to be on high alert into spring with all this snow accumulation.”