By Tim Eberly
The fourth and largest suspected arson fire in recent weeks at Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation burned across more than 200 acres of tribal rangeland Monday afternoon and early Tuesday.
Starting at 5 p.m. Monday, roughly 125 seasonal firefighters from Rocky Boy fought the grass, brush and timber fire until it was contained by 3 a.m. Tuesday, said Emery Nault, Rocky Boy's fire management officer.
Most of the fire burned itself out, Nault said, and firefighters took steps to protect homes in the area.
Nault has not determined how the fire started. But as a result of a rash of suspected arsons, Rocky Boy's fire prevention technician, Wilbur Nagel, left for Missoula on Sunday to receive training in investigating arson. Nagel will study the burned area when he returns, Nault said.
The blaze occurred in the Duck Creek area near the center of the reservation, about a mile west of Stone Child College. There were no injuries, and no homes were damaged, Nault said.
The apparent arson fires in the last three weeks have had similarities. "They were off the road," Nault said. "Somebody had to get out of their vehicle to actually ignite it."
Most of the Monday's fire was located in canyons, coulees and slopes in the mountainous area, and firefighting vehicles could not scale the terrain. Ground crews tended to those areas, while a 1,250-gallon water truck was used to protect about 10 nearby residences, located on the south side of Duck Creek Road.
Though high winds stoked the fire on Monday, a light snow covering Tuesday helped quell some leftover hotspots.
As a precautionary tactic, firefighters employed two bulldozers to create "cat lines" around the Duck Creek homes. They excavated grass, brush and weeds from the ground surrounding the homes to prevent the fire from advancing.
When the fire moved down an embankment toward Duck Creek Road, workers started a smaller fire on the edge of the road to combat the larger blaze, Nault said.
"I told my crews not to use any water unless it was near the homes," Nault said. "In the initial attack, we hardly used any water at all. We just used fire against fire."
Four power poles were burned and damaged, resulting in a power outage for about 15 homes before backup generators were activated several hours later.
Three of the four poles have been replaced, said Rollie Miller, superintendent of Hill County Electric Cooperative.
For the next couple days, firefighters will patrol the area to check on hotspots in the canyons and ensure the blaze remains snuffed out, Nault said.
Nault estimated the fire will cost the tribe "tens of thousands of dollars" for the large crew, as well as equipment.