BROWNING — Residents in the Blackfoot community northeast of Browning are breathing a sigh of relief Monday after overnight snow squelched a fast-moving woodland fire that broke out Sunday.
"With the wind howling and all that, I knew it was going to take off. I was just worried about the direction it was coming and our neighbors,” said Blackfoot resident Christopher Old Chief.
The fire started about a mile east of Blackfeet Community College, and powerful winds fueled the fire's spread northeast toward the community of Blackfoot; authorities ordered residents of the Blackfoot area to evacuate. The roaring winds produced gusts of more than 80 miles per hour in Glacier County throughout the day.
At around 11:30 a.m. on Sunday, Old Chief saw a massive plume of smoke blowing across the prairie. "I was up at my grandpa Larry's. He had a crew up there, my cousins. They were all up there trying to get his cattle out of his barn. They were pushing them down this way, east. After I left there, I came down here and (other neighbors) were getting their cattle down here into safety,” Old Chief recalled. "It was really nerve-racking, you know?” On Monday, the cattle were herded back to their home fields.
At Browning Middle School on Monday morning, the cafeteria, opened as an emergency shelter for people wanting to get away from the fire, was quiet and empty. "We had to prepare for all things,” said James McNeely, Blackfeet Public Information Officer. The Blackfeet Tribe declared a state of emergency Sunday and opened the shelter.
McNeely said this isn't the first time the reservation has been threatened by a fire. "About 10 years ago I believe, in January 2011, we did have a major fire...on the south side of Highway 2,” said McNeely. "A huge shout-out to all of the Hi-Line local fire departments, from East Glacier and Del Bonita, Cut Bank, Shelby, Valier, Sunburst all came to help neighborly duties and help with the fire yesterday."
The official cause of the fire had not been determined as of Monday, but McNeely says power flickered just before the fire was reported, and suspects that an electrical spark may have started the fire.
The fire burned about 25,000 acres.There were no injuries, and only one structure was damaged. Firefighters are keeping an eye on the area in case the fire reignites.