Scorched Earth

By Beacon Staff

Click the image or use the arrows to see more images from the Browning grass fires.

BROWNING – Sharon O’Neil’s world is one of contrast now. Inside her home, just east of Browning along U.S. Highway 2, a fire is roaring in its proper place and dozens of family pictures line the mantle above it.

But outside a far more uncomfortable scene unfolds. Blackened, burnt ground extends beyond the horizon line, interspersed with burned-out cars, charred fence posts and the remains of two garages, all left behind by one of two bizarre and unseasonable wildfires that tore across the Blackfeet Indian Reservation last week. According to tribal officials, the fires burned more than 18,000 acres in less than eight hours, displaced almost 300 people, although no one was injured, and destroyed two homes and a handful of barns, shops and outbuildings.

The night of Jan. 4 was, as Blackfeet Nation Chairman T.J. Show said, “unprecedented.”

Two days after the fires ignited, the burnt smell still lingered outside O’Neil’s window, but somehow her home was unscathed. O’Neil, who was born and raised in the area, was on the train coming back from Seattle when she got a call from a friend telling her the area between Browning and Cut Bank was being evacuated and her home had likely burned down.

“I was devastated,” she said. “I thought I was coming home to no home.”

But good news arrived the next morning; her house had survived, even though not much else did, as the fire took out two nearby garages and four cars, which now resemble metal carcasses. When she first arrived home, O’Neil said she was speechless.

“It looks like a battle zone,” she said.

Wayne Smith, public information officer for the Blackfeet Reservation, said the Boy Fire started north of Browning at about 5 p.m. on Jan. 4 and headed east, eventually burning 6,000 acres northeast of town. An hour later, the Y Fire started near the junction of U.S. Highway 2 and U.S. Highway 89, and headed east toward Cut Bank, scarring 16 miles of land alongside the road and burning an estimated 12,000 acres. Smith said investigators believed a downed power line led to the start of the Boy Fire, while a spark from a wood stove is what ignited the Y Fire.

Winter wildfires are extremely rare, Smith said, and a lack of moisture fueled the fire, along with strong winds pushing it east. When the fires erupted, winds were blowing about 40 miles per hour, with gusts reaching 60 and 70 miles per hour. Some locals, who described the fire as a wall of smoke and flame, said it was at times traveling 30 miles per hour.

“This isn’t something that has happened in recent history and this is one of the worst grassfires we’ve ever seen,” Smith said.

Rancher J.R. Clark, 67, has lived on the Blackfeet Reservation his entire life and said he has never seen anything like last week’s fires. Clark was at his home northeast of Browning watching basketball when his wife looked out the window and saw the flames. Clark quickly joined two ranch hands and began moving equipment and cattle out of the way. One of his assistants hooked a plow up to the rear of a tractor and tried to create a fire line that would prevent it from veering toward Clark’s home and primary barns.

As the fire burned east, law enforcement officers went from door to door, telling people that an evacuation order had been issued. But Clark stayed.

“I told the guy I wasn’t going to evacuate because I had to save my ranch,” he said.

Clark was able to keep the fire from spreading to the core of his ranch, but a large one-story barn was lost in the blaze and acres of grass, an important resource for a rancher, were torched and are now useless.

Elsewhere in the area were scenes of more devastation. There was an empty foundation where a home once stood in a small neighborhood northeast of Browning and firefighters were still monitoring it days later. When the fire started, it headed toward the homes surrounding the Blackfeet Boarding Dorm, which provides housing for children. Firefighter Lyle St. Goddard, who on Jan. 6 was helping with mop up and dousing hot spots, said dozens of students and neighbors had to be evacuated from the small valley as the fire approached. One home was lost in the area.

“There was nothing they could do at the time (for the house),” he said. “They were doing what they could to get people out of harm’s way.”

St. Goddard, a superintendent with the Chief Mountain Hot Shots, was one of 85 firefighters who responded last week from local, state and federal agencies.

It was the efforts of firefighters, both local and from outside the reservation, Chairman Show said, that prevented the wildfires from becoming a more tragic event. He also said the events had brought the community together.

“The Blackfeet Nation, while this is a trying time and a very unwanted event, appreciate the surrounding communities who helped,” Show said. “Now we’ll pick up the pieces and assess the damage.”

The work of firefighters and response from community members also impressed Clark, he said as he drove around his ranch assessing the damage. Clark said everyone “stepped up to the plate,” regardless of background.

“Everyone talks about the reservations and the Indian and white relations, and it didn’t matter,” he said. “People saw a disaster and did what needed to be done.”

On Clark’s property, two days after the fire, the smell of burned grass and wood lingered in the air and smoke still rose from hot spots.

“It’s all gone,” he said, looking at where one of his barns stood only a few days earlier. “I guess I’m still at a ‘what do I do now mentality.’ I don’t know if I should get some boards and start rebuilding yet.”