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Wildland fires engulf western Montana

BROWNING, Mont. - A major wildland or forest fire is burning uncontained on the southern edge of Glacier National Park and has moved into the Blackfeet reservation, forcing evacuations of lodges, homes and other areas on and off the reservation.

All available resources on the Blackfeet reservation and from the local areas and the BIA and other national fire suppression teams are on the fire, called the Skyland fire.

The fire was at one time listed as the No. 1 fire in the state and the nation, but has been downgraded to No. 3. The ranking means that more crews and equipment are allocated to the highest ranking numbers.

The Skyland fire started in mid-July from a lightning strike and grew from 400 acres to 16,000 acres in the matter of five days, according to Robert Mad Plume, Blackfeet tribal fire liaison representative.

The Blackfeet reservation has been put under a state of emergency so that all resources can be directed to fire prevention and fighting the fires that occur.

As of the morning of Aug. 1, the fire had consumed 300 acres on the Blackfeet reservation and the people who live in that area were evacuated. Structures have also been fire protected.

''It is smoky here and is bad at this time,'' Mad Plume said.

The area has not had moisture in a couple of months and temperatures have been in the 90s for several weeks.

''Lakes are drying up, rivers are low and the grasslands are catching on fire,'' he said.

The equipment ranchers use to harvest hay starts fires that require some crews to put out the spot fires.

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Firefighting crews and engines have been sent from the Navajo Nation and from Minnesota to assist the Blackfeet reservation and BIA firefighting crews.

Restrictions apply and no person is allowed in the forested areas, and National Park Service workers and forestry officers are enforcing the restrictions, Mad Plume said.

The Blackfeet reservation has a Hot Shot fire team, which is a team that is highly trained and is assigned to fight the top-priority fires. The Blackfeet team is assigned to another fire in the area.

A problem with the Skyland fire is the ready availability of fuel. It is located in a thick area with lodge pole pine, spruce and fir trees and dry grasses, all of which are highly volatile.

The fire started on the west side of the Continental Divide and the jumped to the east side, where winds are unpredictable.

''They are crazy winds,'' Mad Plume said. ''It can blow from any direction any day. In that area we don't know which way the wind will blow.''

As of Aug. 1, in the morning, no structures were lost on or off the Blackfeet reservation.

In the state of Montana, hundreds of structures have been threatened and evacuations have been ordered for areas in the western edge of the state. Fires are not occurring in the Flathead National Forest, in the Lewis and Clark National Forest and the Helena National Forest.

As of Aug. 1, there were seven major fires in western Montana that were uncontained and 13 fires overall in western Montana. Smoke is felt to the east at Billings, and also in parts of western South Dakota and North Dakota.

The largest fire in Montana is the Ahorn fire, which has consumed more than 36,000 acres. The second-largest and top-ranked fire is the Meriwether fire, which has covered more than 20,000 acres. Both fires are north of Helena.