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Poverty Flats fire near Hardin could be Montana's biggest in a year
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Poverty Flats fire near Hardin could be Montana's biggest in a year

A fire outside near Hardin reached an estimated 55,000 acres Thursday, and personnel are awaiting the arrival of additional resources.

The Poverty Flats fire has torn through swaths of grassland several miles east of Hardin since it began Tuesday, burning south toward the Little Bighorn River. Although no evacuation orders are in place, crews joined Crow Agency BIA Fire and Aviation in protecting dozens of homes Wednesday.

“We initiated structure protection yesterday. That was for about 73 structures from the northernmost reservation boundary to south of Dunmore,” Jack Old Horn, the tribal fire liason, said Thursday.

The fire began off the reservation about 10 miles north of Hardin, according to a statement from the BIA. Strong winds carried the blaze south Wednesday, where dry grass and sage east of the Bighorn and Little Bighorn rivers fed the flames.

The fire also burned through poles carrying power to hundreds of residents in the region, destroying 20 poles belonging to the Big Horn County Electric Co-op. Customers living both to the north and south of Hardin were without power for several hours early Wednesday before crews could make repairs and reroute power around the damaged lines.

“We’re hoping to have all the lost structures back up by tomorrow (Friday),” said Derek Sorley, who has served as the general manager of the electric cooperative for more than two years.

Sorley said the damage to the utility poles will not affect prices for customers. The cooperative has already started conversations about how to protect its infrastructure from future wildfires, such as possibly investing in fire-retardant wraps for its poles.

“I have to praise our crews who started at 2 a.m. (Wednesday). We have a couple of water trucks on standby for emergencies, and I think they helped reduce the damage by spraying a lot of the poles,” he said.

Even without any reported structure damage, Old Horn said about 20 people took temporary shelter in Crow Agency during the past day, where the Montana Red Cross is accepting local residents. While the fire briefly jumped the Little Bighorn River, fueled by pockets of cottonwood trees, crews snuffed out any chance of its spread. Into Wednesday evening, firefighters carved fire lines and created backburns to remove potentially hazardous cottonwoods in the area.

The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, the agency currently assigned to manage to fire, along with the BIA and Big Horn County Rural Fire are among those assigned to the fire. Their efforts are combined with those of local ranchers and several helicopters making water drops.

Old Horn said that as of Thursday morning the fire had “woke up,” but was moving north off the reservation. A Type 2 incident management team was set to assume control of the fire Thursday evening. Until then, there will not be any information available on either containment or an accurate figure for the number of acres burned. However, photos taken of the damage showing hazy, black horizons reinforce estimates given by the BIA.

If the estimate of 55,000 acres burned is accurate, the Poverty Flats fire will have surpassed the largest fire of 2020. The Sarpy fire, which started in September because of a coal seam burning in the same region of Big Horn County, torched about 52,000 acres.

The Crow Tribe enacted stage-two fire restrictions on the reservation Wednesday. Under such restrictions, campfires and fireworks are banned, and driving is limited to designated roads and trails. 

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