The winter of 2021 has been unusually warm and dry on the Blackfeet Reservation. On Sunday, March 28, the wind picked up and a fire broke out on the east side of Browning, quickly spreading eastward and threatening the tiny town of Blackfoot as well as farmers and ranchers along the north side of U.S. Highway 2. The dry conditions and high winds were reminiscent of the Boy and Y Fires that broke out in January 2011 and consumed thousands of acres on the south side of the highway.
“We’re still watching and will monitor the fire because it’s still burning in some spots,” Public Information Officer James McNeely said. “It’s controlled for now, but they’ll be staying for the next few days to keep an eye on things.”
All the outlying fire fighting entities came together to fight the blaze in winds that approached 100 mph. Those included fire departments from East Glacier Park, Cut Bank, Shelby, Valier, Sunburst, Del Bonita and Browning, as well as the Chief Mountain Hot Shots, Blackfeet Fire Management and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Fortunately, there was no loss of life or injuries, and no livestock were lost. Officials noted one unoccupied structure burned, but no homes.
“We clocked the wind at 82 mph, but it felt a lot worse,” McNeely said.
Nevertheless, folks in Blackfoot, Meriwether and Pardue were asked to evacuate ahead of the fire. “All the evacuations were done as precautionary measures, and they were lifted as of late last evening,” McNeely said on Monday, March 29.
Facilities Director Donna Yellow Owl coordinated with the Browning School District to set up a shelter for evacuees at Browning Middle School. She also coordinated with the District’s Food Services and the Blackfeet Tribe to supply sack lunches to the firefighters and everyone else involved in the effort.
The cause of the fire is still being investigated, McNeely said, but dry conditions continue to threaten Blackfeet Country.
“It’s a scary thing,” he said. “We don’t know and we’re battling COVID-19, but this could be what we’ll see in the summer, so everyone should stay cautious and vigilant because they’re forecasting high fire danger.”
So far, it is estimated more than 25,000 acres were burned, but towns, people and livestock were mostly spared.
One outcome of the wind-driven fire was damage to many power poles operated by Glacier Electric Coop, resulting in a planned power outage around 8 p.m. Sunday evening. Power was out for only a little more than 30 minutes.
“Prior to the fire, our crews were out dealing with downed lines from trees, trampolines, tarps and other large debris,” Glacier Electric Operations Manager Mike Pyette said. “It’s not THAT the wind is blowing - it’s WHAT the wind is blowing. It’s important for members to know that when large items get stuck in the lines to call their local GEC office and not attempt to take them off themselves.”
“The crew is still taking an inventory on the damage the fire caused, but there are at least 10 miles of line that have been affected,” Manager of Member Services Jonnalea Tatsey said. “Power had to be rerouted to another substation so work could be performed safely. Thankfully, the new Airport Substation that went online in August 2020 proved to do what it was built for, ensuring a short switching time. Our crews worked late into the night in the elements to ensure that power was safely restored. April 18 is National Lineman Appreciation Day, but when Mother Nature throws a curve ball like she did yesterday, we are thankful to have a line crew like we have. They are the power behind the power that keeps our cooperative running strong!”