HELENA — Emergency officials’ radios went dead as a wildfire neared houses on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in June, contributing to a “chaotic situation” where homes weren’t protected and residents scrambled to get away just ahead of the blaze, a tribal official said Friday.
Ed Joiner, the tribe’s disaster and emergency services coordinator, told a legislative panel the Ash Creek Fire burned power lines and cut the electricity, which knocked out radio communications. The radio site doesn’t have backup power and cellphone service is extremely limited on the reservation.
“When the power went out on that first fire, our communications were basically nonexistent. Nobody knew what anybody was doing,” Joiner told lawmakers in Helena by phone.
“If you can’t communicate with other people, you’re not only putting your life in jeopardy, but the whole thing isn’t running as it should,” he added.
Nearly 150 square miles on the southeastern Montana reservation was burned by two of the state’s largest wildfires this year. The Ash Creek fire in June burned 390 square miles on the reservation and in Powder River and Rosebud Counties. That was followed the next month by the 273-square-mile Rosebud complex of fires.
The lightning-caused Ash Creek fire burned at least 19 homes and additional sheds, barns and other outbuildings.
Normally, the tribe would request structure protection from fire officials under the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and tribal officials would help make the decision about evacuations, Joiner said in a statement to the State-Tribal Relations Interim Committee.
But the breakdown in communications between fire officials and the tribal departments meant the severity of the spreading fire was not conveyed, he said.
“It was a pretty chaotic situation,” Joiner said in the statement. “The request for structure protection never happened and we found residents scrambling to get out of the area just ahead of the fire.”
During the Rosebud fires, the power stayed on and communications problems weren’t repeated, even when the entire town of Lame Deer had to be evacuated on short notice.
With no backup power system and no cellphone service over most of the reservation, emergency communications will continue to be a major problem for the tribe, Joiner said.
State officials pledged to help the tribe secure grants that will help. Angie Mullikan of the Montana Disaster and Emergency Services said grants through the federal Department of Homeland Security and other sources can be used to buy backup power generators, mobile command posts and microwaves to boost communications.
She said officials from her office will help the tribe write the grants. If the reservation already has designated sites for the communications equipment, they could be installed within three months if everything goes smoothly. But if sites must be found, the process could take a lot longer, she said.
Legislators on the interim committee said they would write a letter to support the tribe’s application for grants.