By Patrick Winderl/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Dense gray smoke from a grass fire obscured U.S. Highway 2 west of Havre on Monday, causing a two-vehicle crash that injured a Hill County sheriff's deputy, the Sheriff's Office said.
Deputy Cory Matkin, a four-year member of the sheriff's department, was taken to Northern Montana Hospital in an ambulance after his cruiser was rear-ended by a Dodge pickup.
He was treated and released, Sheriff Greg Szudera said today.
The driver of the pickup, 63-year-old Wallace Tweden of Seattle, was not injured in the wreck.
The crash occurred at 11:55 a.m. six miles west of Havre just past the Big Red Barn after smoke from a fire burning in a nearby field reduced visibility on the highway, the Montana Highway Patrol said.
Several fires began west of Havre about 11 a.m. Firefighters from Havre, Kremlin and Wildhorse responded to the blazes, which ignited over a 3-mile stretch.
"There were fires trailing the tracks from northeast of Kmart to possibly as far as Kremlin," Havre Assistant Fire Chief Tim Ranes said today, adding that Havre fire crews responded to four separate blazes.
It took 10 firefighters about an hour to contain the four fires, he said. Although the fires were under control fairly quickly, crews remained on the scene until 3 p.m. to ensure flames didn't ignite again, Ranes said.
Several salvage vehicles and a number of hayfields were burned, resulting in about $5,000 in damage, the assistant chief said.
Firefighters have determined the fires were caused by a westbound locomotive, Ranes said. Exhaust sparks were probably to blame, though a specific mechanical component has not been identified, he added.
Szudera said Monday that it appeared that a train had sparked the blazes.
Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway spokesman Gus Melonas of Seattle said today that the railroad does not believe a locomotive was responsible for the fires.
"Initial inspections of equipment in the area indicate no signs" of mechanical failure, Melonas said, adding that the railroad is continuing to investigate.
Melonas confirmed that a train left Havre near the time the fires started.
A fire burned within 25 feet of the Big Red Barn, a well-known structure six miles west of Havre. Trucks from three different fire departments cruised the fields near the barn, spraying water on blackened grass. Clouds of acrid smoke blew south across the highway, obscuring visibility and slowing traffic.
The owner of the Big Red Barn, farmer Ron Belcourt, said Monday that the fires broke out shortly before he planned to leave for Havre.
"I was just getting ready to leave," he said. "I'd have been real mad if I got back and all my rigs had burned up."
Belcourt said he was thankful that he had cut the hayfields surrounding the Big Red Barn Sunday night because "otherwise the building would have went," he said.
Deputy Matkin had slowly driven his vehicle into a cloud of smoke with his emergency lights activated and was preparing to control westbound traffic when his cruiser was struck from behind by Tweden's pickup, the Highway Patrol said.
Szudera said Tweden was driving between 40 and 50 mph. Matkin's vehicle was moving slowly and was partially on the shoulder, he added.
Tweden was cited for driving too fast for conditions, the Highway Patrol said.
The force of the collision spun Matkin's crumpled cruiser off the south side of the road, where it came to stop facing southeast. Tweden's pickup left the north side of the road and came to a rest on an incline.
An ambulance was dispatched to the scene of the accident, where emergency personnel extracted Matkin from his vehicle. He was placed on a backboard and taken by ambulance to Northern Montana Hospital.
Szudera said he doesn't know when Matkin will return to work.
The 2002 Dodge Intrepid that Matkin was driving will have to be scrapped, Szudera said.
"I'm positive it was totaled," he said. "I don't have have a dollar figure but the vehicle was beyond repair."
The crash was the second Matkin has been involved in as a sheriff's deputy, Szudera said, adding that a vehicle driven by Matkin was rammed last year during a pursuit.