A wildfire prompted a chaotic evacuation of Lame Deer late Thursday, displacing nearly 2,000 residents on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.
Worried residents filled the gymnasium and school yard at the St. Labre Indian School as they awaited updates.
“The whole town was frantic and nobody seemed to know where to go,” Laretha Pine Killsnight said. “Loud emergency sirens and fire alarms went off and law enforcement drove through neighborhoods shouting out orders for everyone to evacuate immediately. I don’t have a car, so I didn’t know what to do.”
She packed up her 3-year-old grandson, a duffel bag of diapers and a few changes of clothes and began walking to look for a ride out of town.
“You could see and hear how close the fire was to town,” she said. “I was so scared – no transportation and a young grandson that was scared from the loud sirens. I just kept thinking to myself that I had to get us out of there.”
Moments later, a Lame Deer school bus drove through her neighborhood looking for people that needed rides. Killsnight and her grandson and dozens of other residents from the Northern Cheyenne Reservation town of 2,000 filled the bus and escaped to a Red Cross shelter 25 miles away at the St. Labre Indian School in Ashland.
Sleeping bags and tents scattered the school yard. But residents got very little shuteye.
“We never imagined the fire would come into our town,” Tim Lamewoman said. “We’ve been worried all night about family members that refused to leave home. We’ve worried all night about people without their medications. People had to leave pets and belongings behind.
“But, we are all really thankful we haven’t lost any lives to these fires. Everything else can be replaced, but not the lives of our loved ones.”
Rain fell Friday morning, quenching flames that had driven the Lame Deer residents from their homes under evacuation notices from county officials.
By Friday afternoon, officials lifted the evacuation notices and reopened the web of highways running between Colstrip, Lame Deer and Crow Agency.
“We got some precip on the fires this morning and that really helped,” said LaDawn Saxton, information officer with BIA Northern Cheyenne Fire and Aviation.
Crews were battling blazes divided into two main groups — the Sarpy Hills Complex burning about 12 miles northeast of Crow Agency and the Rosebud Complex burning in spots east of Lame Deer and south of Rosebud and Colstrip.
By Friday afternoon, the Sarpy Hills Complex had consumed 51,000 acres and the Rosebud Complex had burned 131,234 acres. More than 100,000 acres of the Rosebud Complex were burned by the Chalky Fire, which threatened Lame Deer on Thursday.
The cool, wet weather that arrived on Friday was worlds removed from the swirling fire and embers driven by strong gusts late Thursday night and early Friday.
“The weather was a huge help today,” Sarpy Hills Complex spokeswoman Cindy Super said.
Fighting late into the night Thursday, crews had to jump on a 3,000-acre “slop over” when the fire jumped Highway 212.
Local crews and specialized teams of firefighters “collectively dogpiled” the jump, stopping the fire in its path, Super said.
“They did an incredible job,” she said.
It’s unclear how many homes were evacuated in the early hours Friday, but at least 13 people were camped out at the Exxon station at the junction of Interstate 90 and Highway 212.
“The winds picked up so fast and were so strong, acres of fire were just rolling toward us,” said resident Pam Garza. “We had no time to get anything out but ourselves.”
Garza, her sister Edwina Perez, and three generations of her family didn’t receive evacuation orders, they just piled into their cars.
All at once the winds picked up, clouds of ash blew over and a wall of flames obscured the landscape, Garza said.
“I don’t think anyone saw it coming,” she said. “We called the forestry people several times and they said we were safe where we were at. The winds just took the fire and it just got way out of control way fast.”
Natoya Perez, Edwina’s daughter, said as they drove away from the fire with nothing more than a few blankets and the clothes on their backs, flames nearly engulfed their SUV.
“Embers and ash were snowing down on us,” Natoya said. “The heat was so intense I really didn’t know if we were going to make it. When you took a breath you could feel the heat burn the back of your throat.”
They awaited word from Bighorn County officials for possible places to stay Friday night. Family members told them their homes were still standing as of 1:30 a.m.
“It’s been hard just sitting here with nowhere to go and having no idea if everything was gone or not,” Perez said. “But at least we’re all safe and together that’s what matters.”
Five hours later, just before sunrise, the families received news that the Garza family had lost one house, two outbuildings and a truck to the fire.
“It will just be one day at a time from here,” Perez said. “We’ll move forward and that is all we can do.”
By Friday morning the Montana Red Cross had set up shelters at the St. Labre Indian School in Ashland and First Congregational church in Hardin.
Stephen Lafurge, Red Cross shelter manager at St. Labre, said 224 evacuees had taken shelter at the school by sunrise.
“Our lights didn’t even go out until after 3 a.m.,” LaFurge said. “People were still trickling in and continue to trickle in.”
Pets were not allowed in the school’s gymnasium where about 85 cots were spread, so many people slept in the parking lot in their vehicles or just set up camp in the school yard with their dogs, cats and rabbits.
The shelters will remain open as long as there’s a need, said Daphne Hart with the Red Cross.
With evacuations lifted, she wasn’t sure how long that would be.
“We’re still trying to assess,” she said.
Also on Friday, a type 2 Incident Command Team took control of the Rosebud Complex, giving a break to local firefighters who had been battling the blaze since early Thursday.
No injuries have been reported in the Rosebud Complex and no structures have been destroyed.
One home was destroyed around midnight on Thursday in the Sarpy Hills Complex but no injuries have been reported.
The size of the Sarpy Hills Complex, which includes East Sarpy, Little Dry Creek, Dawes, West Tullock Creek, Castle Rock II, and South Tullock Creek fires, has grown to well over 51,000 acres, Super said.
Many of the fires in the complex have grown together.