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Fires and smoke threaten Blackfeet reservation

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BROWNING, Mont. - A steadily growing wildfire that has consumed more than 40,000 acres of timber and grassland moved into the Blackfeet reservation and burned nearly 10,000 acres.

Lightning started the fire called the Skyland fire in mid-July on the southeastern edge of Glacier National Park. It is only one of 23 large wildfires in Montana and Idaho that had not been contained as of Aug. 14. Twelve new fires have started in the northern Rockies since the Skyland fire began, four of which are large fires.

The Skyland fire moved onto the Blackfeet reservation Aug. 1. It had burned 9,540 acres and was 59 percent contained as of press time. It has a high potential for growth and is also in difficult terrain.

The fire is listed as a No. 1 incident command fire, which means that a specially trained command group is in charge of managing the fire containment effort.

In addition to the fire activity itself, smoke is causing health problems for many in the area. Southwesterly winds brought smoke from central Idaho into the area, and the smoke could be seen and felt as far away as Minnesota.

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality categorized the air in the city of Great Falls as hazardous to people who are sensitive to poor air quality, such as those with asthma or heart disease, the elderly and young children. Great Falls is 100 miles southeast of Browning.

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Tucker Running Wolf, assistant fire liaison for the Blackfeet Tribe, said the air quality on the reservation is also unhealthy for sensitive groups. He said the smoke there was not from the Skyland fire but from those in Idaho, where 300,000 acres of grass and timber are burning.

The fire is contained on the reservation and had not had any growth in the past 24 hours, Running Wolf said Aug. 14. Ten families were evacuated from the reservation, but were allowed to return to their homes; and the only structures lost were a barn, a bunk house and an outbuilding. Even though an evacuation order is in place, no more evacuations are expected.

Residents and visitors in and around the Skyland fire have been warned that possible evacuations may be ordered. Throughout the western and southwestern portions of Montana, hundreds of families have been evacuated, many of whom have been allowed to return to their homes.

Visitors to Glacier National Park have not been detoured by the fires, and the tourist operations run by the Blackfeet Tribe and tribal members continue to operate normally.

There were 811 firefighters on the Skyland fire as of Aug. 14, reduced from a total nearing 1,000 a week earlier. As the firefighters end their two weeks on duty, they are released to other fires after a brief rest, Running Wolf said. The Blackfeet and the BIA have 300 firefighters on duty and the Chief Mountain Hot Shots from the Blackfeet Reservation are also on the fire line.

Running Wolf said blasting crews are now creating fire lines around the fire in order to stop any further growth.

Topographical fire progression maps are available at