ASHLAND — Twilla Speelman engaged in the saddest sort of treasure hunt on Thursday afternoon.
Speelman rummaged through the ruins of her single-wide mobile home, destroyed on June 26 in the Ash Creek fire. The blaze, which was finally 100 percent contained on Tuesday, scorched nearly 250,000 acres.
It also destroyed 19 homes on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, including the one shared by Speelman, her common-law husband Steve Killsontop and her four grandchildren.
As the tribe and federal agencies begin the arduous task of assessing the damage caused by the fire and deciding what next steps to take, those devastated by the blaze are taking their own first steps toward getting back their lives. The good thing is they’re not doing it alone.
Speelman recounts the night when the blaze burned through the town of Ashland. In one day, the fire blew up to 100,000 acres.
“By the time we were trying to get in and get stuff out, the smoke was too thick, there was no electricity, and the grandkids were crying,” Speelman said, recalling those terrifying moments. “So we just ended up leaving with what we had on our backs.”
Killsontop points up to the hills behind their house to show the fire’s path.
“It was coming down from the top, all the way along this ridge here and it started coming down,” he said.
At the same time, smoke blowing in from the west made it difficult to see, compounded by a power outage.
Inside the trailer, the family groped in the dark for their smaller dogs and cat. Then they got out, hopped in their truck and sped away.
Sorting through what's left
In the capricious way that fires destroy, the house to the left of the couple’s home escaped the blaze, as did a couple more homes across the road. The couple came back on Sunday for the first time, and then returned again on Thursday afternoon.
Looking through the twisted metal and bits and pieces of a life forever changed, Speelman sees a pile of metal jingles that once adorned her granddaughter’s jingle dress. Her shoes crunch on the ground as she steps around the perimeter of what was once her home.
She spots pots and pans, a leg of a kitchen chair, bed springs and what used to be the back door of her home.
Then Speelman finds a treasure: a small ceramic vase, one of a set that was her dad’s. He passed away in 2005. It’s a moment of happy surprise amongst days of sadness and pain.
“I didn’t want to come back, but I knew I had to face it sooner or later,” she said. “I never thought it would happen to me.”
Like many others, Speelman and Killsontop and the children wound up at a shelter at the Boys and Girls Club in Lame Deer, and then with Speelman’s sister, Suzette Cain. Then the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Housing Authority offered the family one of its three-bedroom rental houses in Muddy Cluster.
Even better, the Housing Authority has secured 20 FEMA trailers that will be given to the families who lost everything in the fire. The trailers will likely start trickling in next week.
Michael Speelman, the Housing Authority’s construction division manager, said his department, with a staff of more than 50 people, has been involved in helping people since the fire started. Confusion reigned that first night, he said, and no one was certain who was in charge.
Even so, the Housing Authority jumped into action, helping evacuate people and then making sure the evacuees had water, food and emergency kits, including flashlights. Employees who had experience fighting fires took modified Housing Authority rigs out to help protect homes, when they could.
“That’s what the Housing Authority is about, providing homes and, in this case, protecting them, said Speelman, who is Twilla Speelman’s cousin.
Staff members also traveled to the destroyed homes, fed dogs and other animals, filled water tanks for livestock and even provided security to keep looters away.
Of the 19 houses that were destroyed, 11 are primarily residences are the others are called summer homes, since they are not for everyday use. Only three of the 19 were insured, Speelman said.
The department’s work only began with the fire’s onset, he said. Since then, all 11 families have been moved into rental housing, and all will be offered a trailer to live in, whether they want to use it permanently or until they build a new dwelling.
“As we moved these people into these rental units, these units have been fully furnished with beds, dressers, tables and TVs,” Speelman said.
To help with incidentals, family members who lost everything each received $500, or $2,500 per family, to replace clothing and other personal items. Accounts have been set up at the West End Walmart in Billings, where families can buy what they need.
Everything the Housing Authority has been able to do for the displaced families, Speelman said, the staff has done wholeheartedly.
“Because we’re one of the largest programs with the most employees, we had the ability to do it,” Speelman said. “We weren’t asked to do it, we just did it because it’s the right thing to do.”
Donations come in
Down at the other end of town in Lame Deer, another organization offered help in another way. The newly opened Everything Beautiful thrift store hadn’t even held its grand opening when the fire tore through Ashland and the surrounding communities.
Cain, manager of the store sponsored by the Northern Cheyenne Ministerial Association, asked the fire victims staying at the Boys and Girls Club about their clothing needs and then brought boxes of clothes to them and hygiene kits. The store, with two bathrooms, also offered the families a place to shower each day.
Cain, who is planning to become a deaconess with the Circle of Life Lutheran Church in Muddy Cluster, also took time to sit and talk and pray with the people at the shelter. And she also provided a different kind of comfort to those hurting from their homelessness.
“One man said he wished he could have a blanket of his own because he had nothing,” Cain said.
It just so happened that one organization, Orphan Grain Train, had donated 333 boxes of clothes, mercy meals and homemade quilts and afghans. Cain brought boxes of blankets to the shelter and let the residents pick out blankets of their own choosing.
“There were a lot of tears and a lot of prayers and a lot of hugging in that room,” Cain said. “And they just hugged their blankets.”
A time for healing
In the aftermath of the fire, some issues have yet to be resolved. Jace Killsback, member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council said that a lack of communication in the first days of the fire caused fear and confusion to reign. There was a lack of communication between the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the tribe, and not enough communication between the tribe’s administration and its members.
“The council is still looking for accountability,” Killsback said. “And I want to say that accountability is not the same as blaming somebody. All we’re asking is for them to tell us the truth.”
He hopes an investigation is launched to determine what went wrong, in terms of how the fire was handled and how the tribe’s leadership served members during the crisis. Once mistakes are identified, he said, they can be corrected before the next emergency arises.
Killsback also talked about how the tribe is helping its members to heal. At the Fourth of July Chiefs Powwow, the Ashland residents who lost their homes, as well as firefighters, housing and health staff members and police came into the dance arbor in Lame Deer.
As an honor song was played, those people stood in a line and everyone else came up and shook their hands, Killsback said. The idea was to take off their burden, their stress and their feeling of anxiety “and in a sense welcome them back into the community and show them support.”
"By bringing them into this cultural circle, we showed respect for them, but also our compassion,” Killsback said.