BROWNING - Two wildfires on Montana's Blackfeet Indian Reservation burned thousands of acres, forced scores to evacuate and destroyed several buildings overnight, but rain helped firefighters and volunteers get a handle on the blazes on Thursday.
Fueled by strong winds and gusts above 60 mph, the two blazes started around sundown Wednesday and together grew to 16,000 acres by early Thursday, a revision of an earlier estimate of 45,000 acres, said tribal spokesman Wayne Smith. At least 300 people were forced to leave their homes and a boarding school, though no injuries had been reported.
Rain fell at 5 a.m., helping crews gain the upper hand on the fires, which were 75 percent and 80 percent contained by midmorning, said fire manager Tyson Runningwolf.
"That's a good sign," he said. "What's caused the reduction was the big workforce on the fires. We were able to get a hold of it."
At least 80 firefighters and volunteers from the tribe, neighboring counties and several federal agencies responded to the fire, Runningwolf said. They were assisted by farmers and ranchers whose land stood in the path of the fires.
Crews were helped by Thursday morning's weather conditions, as the wind died down to 15 mph a cold front raised the relative humidity to 70 percent, said National Weather Service Meteorologist Ben Schott.
The wind was expected to pick up again later Thursday, leaving fire officials wary.
"Fire is so unpredictable, I wouldn't say we're totally out of the woods yet," Smith said.
Browning residents said the fires illuminated the sky and created a chaotic scene as the city's streets were flooded with emergency vehicles and people unsure of what was happening.
"You could see flames all around on the east side of Browning, they were very clear and bright," said Browning resident Gabe Renville. "It was chaos. It was a danger to be out. There was traffic and flashing lights and I was afraid somebody was going to get run over."
Fire officials were investigating whether the fires on the northwestern Montana reservation east of Glacier National Park were caused by power lines blown over by high winds, but there has been no preliminary determination of the cause, Smith said.
One fire started southeast of Browning around sunset and burned about eight miles east to the community of Blackfoot, Smith said. Another blaze erupted around the same time about 10 miles away.
"It's probably the biggest grass fire in reservation history," Smith said. "It was just a wall of fire heading east."
A blaze called the Y-fire has scorched at least 12,000 acres and was about 80 percent contained, he said.
The nearby Boy Fire had burned through about 6,000 acres of grasslands and was 75 percent contained.
About 200 residents and students were evacuated from an area north of Browning on Boarding School Road, where there is a boarding school, while another 100 people from two Hutterite communities were evacuated to the Cut Bank Civic Center about 35 miles east of Browning.
Renville said his 12-year-old daughter, who attends the school, sent him a text message at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday saying there was a fire near the school. Buses were sent and the school's staff used their personal vehicles to evacuate more than 60 students and bring them to the Blackfeet tribal offices in Browning, where their parents picked them up, Renville said.
The Hutterites arrived in Cut Bank about 9:30 p.m. Wednesday and remained until after 1 a.m., when U.S. Highway 2 reopened, said Jennifer Biegler, Cut Bank's parks and recreation director. Volunteers and local officials brought blankets, food, water and coffee for the evacuees.
"They were hungry and worried and nervous and anxious," Biegler said. "We knew there was a fire, but we first heard it was way by Browning. The next thing we knew, it was 14 miles from town."
Evacuation orders have been lifted for the Seville and Hidden Lake Hutterite colonies, KSEN-AM in Shelby reported. U.S. 2 was re-closed to through traffic between Cut Bank and Browning Thursday morning, the radio station reported.
There have not been any further evacuations, Smith said.
Officials estimate between 10 and 15 structures have been damaged or destroyed in the fires. An assessment was set for Thursday morning to determine the number of buildings burned and whether any were houses, Smith said.
National Weather Service meteorologist Chris Zelzer in Great Falls said a 61 mph wind gust was recorded in Cut Bank just before 6 p.m. Wednesday, and a 72 mph gust was recorded in Heart Butte south of Browning a few minutes later.