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The Miracle That Saved Heart Butte From Burning

The wind that brought the Spotted Eagle Fire close to the Blackfeet reservation is the same that sent it in another direction.

“If the wind stopped blowing, we’d all fall down,” joked Pat Armstrong of the Blackfeet reservation in Montana. To a newcomer, the force that blows here is unlike any other experience of the relatively benign flow of air commonly referred to as wind. The wind here is often clocked at 80-100 miles per hour. It makes the eyes run with tears and rips even the most firmly placed watch cap off one’s head depositing it at an unseen distance far away. Surely such a force should be called something else altogether to note its greatness.

Indeed, it was the wind that brought the flames from summer forest fires this year closer to the reservation than anyone can remember, forcing folks from their homes, fleeing for their lives.

Remarkably, it was the same wind that also saved the people and their property. Changing course at the last possible moment, it diverted the fire away from the tiny community of Heart Butte on the Blackfeet reservation and its smattering of homes clinging stubbornly to the rugged hills just below the Butte.

It was as though an intangible force protected the people. Many people here believe that to be the case.

Folks in Heart Butte, especially those who live on ranches on the edge of town, are a self reliant, sturdy lot. They are used to taking care of themselves, their community and land. Life here in this stark yet beautiful environment is also a leap of faith in which spiritual connection to the land sustains residents through the challenges of the seasons.

The hot, dry summer season, for instance, means wildfires, and wildfires mean smoke.

Smoke from summer wildfires, often heavy, is not uncommon but this season was different.

“We had heavy smoke here for over three months, but my wife had a funny feeling that day and told our son to look outside,” recalls Dusty Crawford.

“He saw a wall of fire come out of the smoke,” Crawford said.

Although it was mid-afternoon, heavy smoke from the fires that began in the nearby Lewis and Clark National Forest made it dark as night during that Friday, August 28 according to Crawford and other residents of Heart Butte.

Nearly two months after the fires, Heart Butte residents are still visibly shaken and traumatized by their close call with the wildfires.

“Everybody just panicked! When I first saw the fire, I wondered if it was the sun and realized it couldn’t be,” Crawford said.

“I thought, oh my God, where are we gonna run? We’re gonna burn!” he recalled.

“I just grabbed some clothes and threw them in a suitcase. I loaded the cooler and my three kids into the “side by side” (ATV) and got out of there. One kid had on p.j.s and one was wearing swimming trunks; none of them had any shoes on,” said Anna Armstrong of Heart Butte as she described her family’s sudden evacuation. Armstrong has three children ages 3, 6 and 12.

“I thought of all our keepsakes left behind that were irreplaceable. But in the end, I realized we would be okay even if we lost it all,” Armstrong said.

“The fire moved so fast, like there was gasoline on the ground feeding it,” said Marvin Crawford (Dusty’s brother).

He and fellow ranchers worked desperately to get their animals out of harm’s way, opening gates and driving them away from the path of the fire.

Some cattle perished in the fire; the exact number is unknown. Marvin Crawford reported seeing some charred elk remains as well.

Miraculously no one was hurt and no property was damaged. At the last minute, the wind changed, turning the fire away from the homes scattered outside of the main Heart Butte community.

Although residents from the main village were evacuated to Browning, many living in the rugged hills near the base of Heart Butte itself chose to stay in their homes in hopes of saving their property. These homes were directly in the path of the fire and most immediately in danger.

Many of the residents, mostly owners of small ranches, are unable to purchase insurance for their modest homes because of proximity to fire fighting services and/or the type of construction materials used in their buildings according to Crawford and other residents.

“This is all we have in the world,” he said.

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The August 28 fire originated in the Lewis and Clark National Forest and was referred to as the “Spotted Eagle”fire. According to Incident Information System, InciWeb, the fire resulted from lightning strikes during the week of August 9 in remote heavy timber near Spotted Eagle Mountain.

The origin of the fire was located in an area too dangerous for firefighters to try and put out in its beginnings according to Forest Service officials. For a time, the fire seemed to behave according to known models but suddenly on August 28 conditions conspired to send flames high into the treetops allowing the fire to make a mad dash down slope towards Heart Butte.

The speed and ferocity of the fire seemed to have caught even seasoned firefighting veterans by surprise.

The little town of Heart Butte, where some people lack cell phones or internet service had no evacuation plan and had to, in many cases, rely on authorities to go from door to door in order to notify residents of the evacuation order declared by the Blackfeet tribal council in Browning.

Long time residents reported that the Spotted Eagle fire was a frightening new experience. No one could recall such a large and sudden fire although some residents recalled hearing elders speak of a similar fire season during the early 20th century.

“On Friday evening the fire grew from approximately 200 acres to close to 50,000 acres,” according to Alan Sinclair, Deputy Incident Commander for the Southwest Area Incident Management Team 4.

The fire burned more than 77 square miles according to the Great Falls Tribune.

Deb Mucklow, ranger of the Spotted Bear Ranger District, told theGreat Falls Tribune that this year reminded her of stories of the “Big Blowup” of August 20-21 in 1910 that grew to 1,736 fires. It burned more than 3 million acres, destroyed several towns and killed 85 people in Montana and Washington.

Conditions then, an unusually dry season and an excess amount of fuel in the forest, helped create an environment for the Big Blow Up. Conditions have been similar in 2015 and may become worse according to fire fighting authorities as well as scientists who study wildfires. Indeed, 2015 is shaping up to be one of the worst fire seasons in history. According to a story in Stateline, a nonprofit news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts, nine million acres have burned across the country so far creating what editors named, “A New Era of Crazy Wildfires.”

“Fire seasons are more than two months longer than they were in the 1970s. Forests across the West are dense, dry, stressed by climate change and plagued by the mountain pine beetle.”

The pine beetle infests trees and creates dead kill, dry tinder for fire.

Mary Annette Pember

Marvin Crawford holds onto his hat as he stands at base of Heart Butte near his home on the Blackfeet reservation.

John Gilham, Blackfeet tribal Forest Manager explained how climate change increases wildfire risks.

“Increased temperatures combined with longer growing seasons, less moisture, reduced snowpack in the mountains create dry conditions and more fuel for fires,” he said.

More people are also moving into forested areas as former timber economies shift to tourism and recreation, the Stateline article noted.

Differences in fighting wildfires and forest management styles between tribes and federal agencies contribute to the problem. Blackfeet Fire Management has a 100 percent fire reduction policy. Federal land management policies used by the Parks Service and National Forest Service authorize agencies “to use all the tools in the toolbox to suppress fires,” according to Traci Weaver, Fire Communications Education Specialist for the National Park Service.

This means that federal agencies have a “let it burn” policy in some cases, meaning that some fires are allowed to run their natural course.

The reservation is bordered by both Glacier National Park and the Lewis and Clark Forest.

According to an article inHigh Country News the federal policy jargon make it difficult to understand which fires or parts of fires that federal agencies will suppress or allow to burn. For instance, the Forest Service works immediately to put out human caused fires but other naturally occurring fires, depending on the season , risks to public safety and long term benefit to the forest may be allowed to burn.

Wild fire fighting strategies and the use of suppression fires, fires that burn up excessive amounts of potential fuel in forests, are controversial. Some experts maintain that cutting down dead or dying trees helps reduce fires. Some environmentalists, however, oppose cutting down trees. Keith Hammer of the Swan View Coalition notes that wildfires enrich soil and create different wildlife habitat.

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According to the Flathead News Group, there is a history of bad blood between the Blackfeet tribe and the National Park Service about wildfire and forest management policies.

The tribe is seeking $60 million in damages caused by a fire that started in Glacier National Park and burned 19,000 acres on the reservation.

Gilham noted that tribal, federal, state and county fire fighting resources have been stretched thin by the larger and longer fire season.

In fact, the famous Chief Mountain Hotshots, an elite Native American fire fighting crew based out of Browning were busy fighting a fire several hours away in another part of the state when the Spotted Eagle fire hit the Blackfeet reservation.

“Initially the Forest Service thought that the Spotted Eagle fire would be contained within the Lewis and Clark Forest,” Gilham said.

The fire, however, got to the reservation very quickly. “We were trying to get our ducks in a row to deal with the fire but before we could get anything in place we had to move straight to emergency evacuation,” according to Gilham.

Several local volunteer fire departments joined tribal and BIA firefighters as they worked to protect structures and later worked to establish fire lines to keep the fire from spreading.

Montana Sen. Jon Tester noted that Blackfeet tribal officials had reached out to the BIA to help pay for more firefighting personnel during the unusually hot and dry season. Earlier this summer Tester sent a letter to Department of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell asking for additional funding for firefighters. No additional personnel have been hired according toHungry Horse News.

In 2008, the Blackfeet tribe assumed all responsibility for fire fighting and management contracting with the BIA to provide personnel. The BIA requires the Blackfeet Tribe to pay for emergency firefighting staffing costs upfront.

Several tribal community members expressed concern about future wild fire policies and procedures and worried about the longer-term impact of the Spotted Eagle fire.

Tom Crawford of Heart Butte leases grazing land in order to feed his cattle. Although the fire destroyed much of the grass on the land leased through the BIA, Crawford noted that not only will he have to continue to pay for the lease he will also have to borrow money to purchase feed for his cattle during the coming months.

“We haven’t seen the end yet of the impact of this fire. I think we may see more flooding and pollution to the water table down the line. A lot of the wild game that we depend on also got burned up,” said Marvin Crawford.

In the end, however, he is grateful that his home is still standing and believes that there were forces greater than forest and fire management policies that worked to turn the fire away from the people of Heart Butte.

He and his family have faithfully conducted yearly ceremonies here at Heart Butte, an important sacred site for the Blackfeet.

“The elders told me not to worry, that our traditions would protect us. There was really no reason for our homes not to burn but the wind came and turned the fire away from us. This is why we need to keep our ways and language alive,” observed Tom Crawford.