Now that the winds and fire have died down, an estimated 12,000 acres of property across Hill and Blaine counties lie blackened. But, as far as local firefighting groups know, not one person was injured, and no structures were damaged. Some cattle were voluntarily moved from danger by property owners.
The fire started just before noon Tuesday, as a Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway track crew were welding on the tracks a few miles east of Havre, according to Havre Fire Chief Dave Sheppard and nearby residents.
Gus Melonas, BNSF public relations director, said there was a crew “performing maintenance work in the area where there was a fire”, but any connection is speculation. BNSF are still investigating the cause and have not reached any conclusions this morning.
Kris Holsapple, who lives east of town with her husband Jeff, said the fire started next to their land, just 100 feet east of their barn.
She said the fire caught in grass along the tracks before the southwest wind sent the flames into the Holsapple’s irrigation ditch, which had more vegetation in it. As the irrigation ditch split, heading toward the Milk River and the rest of the Holsapple’s fields, the fire followed both paths.
Havre Daily News/Pam Burke
Two fronts of the grass fire are seen burning north of the Milk River, east of Havre yesterday.
The Havre Fire Department got its first call about the fire at 12:07 p. m. and spent the next few hours with local mutual aid departments from Chinook and rural districts of Wild Horse, Bear Paw and St. Joseph, attempting to control the blaze which had jumped the Milk River and spread northeast across fields, pastures and prairie. The crews nearly succeeded in stopping the fire.
Then the winds changed.
In the late afternoon and evening, winds around 30 mph, with gusts up to 60 mph, fanned the flames and carried them back down to the river bed, up to the railroad tracks and U. S. Highway 2 and into Blaine County, as far east as the fields across the highway from The Plainsmen’s parking lot, halfway to Chinook.
Blaine County took over command of the firefighting around 6 p. m., as more firefighters came in from other Blaine County areas, including Hogeland and Fort Belknap.
According to Haley Gustitis, from Blaine County’s Disaster and Emergency Services Department, there were firefighters from Rudyard to Glasgow helping out.
Trucks from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation office in Lewistown also came up to help out.
Private vehicles, including water tankers and personal firefighting vehicles from local ranches, were seen fighting the fire as well.
The Plainsmen, as the eastern most end of the fight, served as a rallying point for firefighters and local residents, who all gathered in the parking lot, in more than a dozen vehicles, looking for opportunities to help out.
Officials asked Northwestern Energy to shut off a section of their power lines “so the fire crews could work safely around it, ” according to Northwestern Energy’s Communications Director Claudia Rapkoch. Fifteen residents were without electricity until the power was turned back on around 11 p. m.
As the sun went down, and well into the night, firefighters were shrouded in smoke and battered by the high winds and dust storms.
Havre Fire Chief Dave Sheppard said that most of his engines were released around 1 a. m., when the fire had finally been contained solely in the Milk River bottom.
Gustitis said this morning that Blaine County firefighters are still in that brush and tree laden area, where the fire is “95 percent contained. ”
They are now “mopping up” the area, searching out hot spots and making sure they can’t flare up again.
Dry winter, high winds cause fire problems across Hi-Line
Tuesday’s grass fire was one of three that the Havre Fire Department has had to extinguish in the past week.
The first two were west, where pellet stove remains ignited a field between Havre and Kremlin, and south, where an arcing power line ignited a small patch of grass.
And that’s just Havre.
Sheppard said that the firefighters from Bear Paw Rural Fire District who helped extinguish Tuesday’s fire east of Havre, had early that same day been fighting another grass fire just off the Beaver Creek highway.
A fire near Fort Benton also was reported to have burned up thousands of acres and interfered with traffic on U. S. Highway 87.
“Ordinarily, March is not our busy grass fire season, ” Sheppard said.
But after this year’s warm and dry winter, Sheppard said the area is basically in the same condition that it doesn’t usually see until August.
“Everything is just bone dry, and the high winds just compound it, ” Sheppard said. “People need to just be aware of conditions. ”
He insists people need to keep this in mind, and to be prepared. When smoking, burning or welding, Sheppard recommends having some water, or some way of putting a fire out, on hand. Just in case.