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Smoke containing unknown materials blanketed the downwind skies across BIA Route 1 on Thursday, Nov. 7, as the  “old pencil factory” burned in high winds. Law enforcement blocked the route as firefighters worked to contain the blaze, preventing motorists from inhaling potentially dangerous chemicals.

It wasn’t quite 7 a.m. on Thursday, Nov. 7, when Lyle Rutherford, Chief of the Browning Volunteer Fire Department, learned that the old Blackfeet Indian Writing Instrument factory on BIA Route 1 was burning. High westerly winds were fanning the flames as first responders arrived, and thick, black smoke engulfed the highway and points east.

“BVFD had received a fire page from BLES Dispatch for a report of a structure fire on Route 1,” Rutherford said. “The information we received was a report of a fire at the old Blackfeet Indian Writing Company facility (a.k.a. old pencil factory). The responding units that arrived on scene first reported a working structure fire in the northeast section of the building with heavy flames and heavy smoke showing.”

Several entities wound up fighting the blaze, amounting to around 34 first responders on the scene. According to Rutherford, “We really needed them.”

“Due to the size of the facility and the unknown amount of fuels inside, it was later determined to upgrade the incident to a multi-alarm incident so BVFD put out a mutual aid request for more resources and manpower,” the Chief continued. “We would like to thank East Glacier VFD, Babb/St. Mary VFD, Cut Bank VFD, Blackfeet EMS, Blackfeet Law Enforcement, Blackfeet Fire Cache, Blackfeet DES, Glacier County Sheriff, BNSF and others who played a role helping with the incident.”

The dense smoke contained unknown possible contaminants, so BLES officers closed off Route 1, requiring drivers to find an alternate way into Browning. Chief Rutherford said although the building housed the pencil factory at one time, another company that used industrial chemicals moved in later. “Industrial fires are the worst,” he said.

“Our prime objective was to contain it,” Rutherford said, noting a nearby blue structure was undamaged. “It’s a total loss. Due to the community importance of the building, sadly the building and the old pencil relics could not be saved from the heavy fire damage.”

The incident required responders to work from around 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., returning the following morning to begin investigating the cause and nature of the event. “It’s being investigated by the state fire marshal and BVFD,” Rutherford said, adding the fire marshal will return later this week.

The effort took a toll on the responders, and the community showed their support. “We would especially like to thank the Browning community member who purchased food out of their pocket to feed us firemen this afternoon,” said the fire chief. “It had a huge impact on the morale of the firemen.”

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