BROWNING - 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 two blazes 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. Tribal officials were conducting an assessment on Thursday for an accurate count and to determine how many of the buildings were homes.
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 they worked 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., helping crews gain the upper hand, which were 75 percent and 80 percent contained by midmorning, fire manager Tyson Runningwolf said.
At least 80 firefighters and volunteers from the tribe, neighboring counties and several federal agencies responded to the fire, Runningwolf said. They were assisted by farmers and ranchers, like Clark, whose land stood in the path of the fires.
Crews were helped by Thursday morning'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.
The wind was expected to pick up again later Thursday, leaving fire officials wary.
Fire officials were investigating whether the fires were caused by power lines blown over by high winds, but there has been no preliminary determination of the cause, 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.
One fire started southeast of Browning around sunset and burned about eight miles east to the community of Blackfoot, Smith said. Another blaze erupted around the same time about 10 miles away.
A blaze called the Y-fire has scorched at least 12,000 acres and was about 80 percent contained, he said.
The nearby Boy Fire had burned through about 6,000 acres of grasslands and was 75 percent contained.