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Jason Begay
Special to Indian Country Today

MISSOULA, MONTANA – Residents in three separate Montana reservations banded together to save homes, lives and cultural sites as wildfires scorched nearly 200,000 acres on and near tribal lands in the last two weeks.

As of Monday, most of the fires threatening the Flathead Indian Reservation in western Montana; the Fort Belknap Indian Community in the northcentral part of the state and the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in the east, have been contained. However, just a week earlier, evacuation plans were active in all three areas displacing hundreds of families.

As of Monday:

  • The Richard Spring fire, on the Northern Cheyenne reservation, was 100 percent contained after burning more than 171,000 acres. The residents of Lame Deer and Ashland, who had been evacuated, had returned home.
  • The Pine Grove fire near the Fort Belknap Indian Community had burned more than 16,000 acres and was considered 58 percent contained. More than 200 people were evacuated from homes in the reservation towns of Lodgepole and Pine Grove were allowed to return but have been told to remain on alert.
  • On the Flathead Indian Reservation, the collective Crooks, Boulder and Whitetail Creek fires had burned through nearly 3,000 acres and was considered nearly 50 percent contained. Evacuation plans, which were placed on alert a week earlier, have been lifted.

There were no reported fatalities in any of the fires. And so far, only one home, the reported source of the Fort Belknap fire, was reported destroyed. Rains and cooler temperatures throughout the end of the week and through the weekend helped curtail the flames. However, forecasts called for a return to hot, dry weather.

“People are still uneasy,” said Tescha Hawley, a Gros Ventre tribal citizen on the Fort Belknap reservation, who helped coordinate volunteer efforts during the fires. “It will be hard to tell what’s going to happen in the next few days. We are in a drought.”

Ft. Belknap fire in Montana. (Photo by Rod Benson)

It has been an early and severe fire season. The state of Montana has seen more than 2,000 wildfires so far in 2021. Of those fires, 1,392 were human caused. The state currently ranks fourth nationwide in acreage burned this year.

The Richard Spring fire was first identified on Aug. 8 about 10 miles southwest of Colstrip, Montana, a town north of the reservation border. A separate fire was identified near Lame Deer, the Northern Cheyenne tribal capital, two days later. Flames from both fires threatened multiple communities and infrastructure throughout the reservation, according to information gathered by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group.

By Aug. 9, the fire had come close enough to call for an evacuation of Ashland, Montana, just on the reservation’s border. Then came the call to evacuate Lame Deer.

“Everything happened so fast, I forget what days these were, it’s such a blur,” said Gwen Talawyma, a Northern Cheyenne councilwoman. “We had both fires coming toward Lame Deer.”

Ft. Belknap fire in Montana. (Photo by Rod Benson)

Talawyma knocked on doors in Lame Deer, advising residents to evacuate.

“It was very chaotic, everyone was scrambling to make sure everyone else was safe,” she said. “The fire was literally over the hill, about half a mile away. It was pretty huge. The trees were just going up in flames.”

Evacuees were sent to Busby High School on the eastern side of the reservation and to the Apsáalooke Events Center on the neighboring Crow reservation. The tribe sent elders further away from the smoke, to hotel rooms in Billings.

Many refused to leave, choosing to try to protect their homes, their land.

“There were so many volunteers,” Talawyma said. “I was amazed at how much people were willing to help try and save the houses. They saved all the houses between Lame Deer and Ashland, the fire was literally in the backyard.”

Talawyma estimated that up to 100 volunteers helped in fire suppression efforts. Most were tribal citizens, some were ranchers.

Ft. Belknap fire in Montana. (Photo by Warren Morin)
Ft. Belknap fire in Montana. (Photo by Warren Morin)

The fire season has come earlier and with more intensity than in recent years, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, the Boise-based national support center for wildland firefighting. The trend over recent years shows that while the overall numbers of fires might be decreasing, the number of acres burned are increasing.

This is likely caused by the extensive droughts affecting most of the western United States. Less moisture in the air and ground make for dry fuel for fires. This cuts into the reaction time that firefighting agencies have to launch suppression efforts.

“The fires are more intense,” said Candice Stevenson, a spokeswoman for the fire center. “The fires are spreading quicker. They are harder to fight because they spread faster than what we’ve seen in the past.”

Wilderness areas have adapted to recovering from fires. However, drought-affected fires burn with more intensity and more frequently, which can affect this natural process, said Molly Hunter, a science advisor for the Joint Fire Science Program. The long-term effects of these more intense fires are still unknown.

“Some of those forests in Montana are pretty well-adapted to hot fire,” Hunter said. “But because the conditions are harsher, we don’t have a good handle on how they interact in these conditions.”

Even with the flames extinguished, the drought persists, which could hinder the natural post-fire healing process. “The conditions still have to be ripe for (burned areas) to survive. More and more it seems the conditions are harsh for things to establish again,” Hunter said.

Aftermath of Ft. Belknap fire in Montana. (Photo by Warren Morin)

In 2020, there were 999 large wildfires (burned at least 100 acres) throughout the country and more than 10 million acres burned, according to the National Interagency Coordination Center 2020 annual report. Through the last 50 years, only two years reported more acreage burnt: 2015 and 2017.

So far this year, 93 large fires have been recorded, burning more than 2.5 million acres.

This is notable because the fire season began early this year. The interagency fire center increased the national preparedness level to five, the highest alert level, on July 14, an event that normally does not happen until late July/early August.

Hawley, on the Fort Belknap reservation, is the founder and CEO of Day Eagle Hope Project, a nonprofit advocacy and support center that began as a resource for cancer patients and has since expanded. Last year, she home delivered meals during the pandemic. Last week, she provided fire relief.

The fire was first reported on Aug. 16. in the town of Pine Grove located along the Little Rocky Mountains, which is regularly hit with high, dry winds. Within hours, the fire spread uncontrollably engulfing the forest and tall grass on the plains.

“We know the first line of protection was human lives and then buildings,” Hawley said. “We knew this was going to happen fast.”

The fire spread miles throughout the Little Rockies and beyond the southern border of the reservation toward the border town of Zortman, Montana.

Aftermath of Ft. Belknap fire in Montana. (Photo by Warren Morin)

Volunteers quickly banded together to dig fire lines in an effort to protect neighborhoods and homes.

Casey Martin, Gros Ventre, and who grew up on Fort Belknap, and owner of Martin’s Construction, offered his bulldozer, a semi truck and plow blade.

“Early that morning, I was pouring concrete when I got a call,” Martin said. “They put us to work.”

Martin spent the day cutting firelines into the ground, digging away the vegetation in strips about 15 feet wide and 8 inches deep. However, while digging, the fire managed to jump the line, spreading closer to Martin’s work space than anticipated.

Suddenly, Martin and his crew were within 20 feet of the flames. A smokejumper, trained firefighters who parachute into wildfires, turned up and told him to head back from the flames.

“The smoke was so thick I had to close my eyes and hold my break,” Martin said. The smoke soon created a thick veil. “We lost our sense of direction. We weren’t sure which was north, south, east or west.”

Martin eventually came across a house through the darkness and used that as a landmark to make his way out.

“The heat was something else,” Martin said.

Aftermath of Ft. Belknap fire in Montana. (Photo by Warren Morin)

Most residents had been evacuated at that point, leaving sprinklers running over lawns and houses. William Main Jr., a roads construction foreman who was also called to assist digging firelines, said he only ran into one person who stayed behind to protect property.

Main was one of more than a dozen tribal citizens who volunteered to help fight the fires. Some, like Main, who fought fires as a teen, had experience while others did not. Still, Main said everyone banded together to protect homes.

“There was no single cause that helped fight the fires, there were so many people working,” Main said, listing people who were digging, others who were pumping spray mechanisms on homes and yards. “We definitely played a major role in saving homes. We are pretty relieved that the fire didn’t burn down any houses.”

Hawley said the takeaway from the fires is the community spirit that arose from throughout the region.

Neighboring communities also pitched in to help the tribes. Neighboring Roosevelt, Hill, Blaine, Phillips and Dawson counties sent law, EMT and firefighting resources, said Camille Stein, spokeswoman for the Fort Belknap tribes.

In addition, tribes from throughout the state also donated supplies for the evacuated, including from the Blackfeet, the Fort Peck Indian Reservation tribes and the Chippewa Cree from the Rocky Boy reservation.

“We have a lot of people that stepped up,” Hawley said. “Without them, the whole Pine Grove would have been wiped out.”

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