ROCKY BOY'S INDIAN RESERVATION - Local law enforcement officers and federal fire marshals are investigating a series of possibly manmade fires on Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation.
Six or seven small blazes began in the Bear Paw Mountains late Tuesday or early Wednesday. All but one were put out Wednesday. Three fire departments continued to fight a 10-acre fire near Rocky Boy Agency this morning.
Although the fires were relatively small, a critical shortage of personnel and the fires' locations made them difficult to put out, said Robert "Sonny" Belcourt, director of natural resources for the Chippewa Cree Tribe.
The fires appear to be man-made, Belcourt said. Rocky Boy Police and fire marshals with the Bureau of Indian Affairs are investigating, he said.
"We've never seen anything like this," he said. "We're really concerned. Our tribal council was made aware of the situation and they are all very concerned."
As of Wednesday, all forests within the reservation are closed to unauthorized use, Belcourt said. With the exception of firefighters and fire investigators, no one is allowed in the forests, he said. Violators may be arrested.
Tribal police blocked forest roads Wednesday afternoon. The road leading to the largest of the blazes, the Muddy Creek Fire, was guarded by a uniformed officer. Only firetrucks and unmarked vehicles with U.S. government license plates were allowed access to the road.
The Hill County Sheriff's Office is investigating a similar fire that occurred on private property adjacent to the reservation. The fire, reported at 6 a.m. Wednesday, burned some hay bales before being put out by the Bear Paw Volunteer Fire Department, Hill County Sheriff Greg Szudera said today. No was injured.
"The cause is being investigated," Szudera said. "It's very suspicious."
Deputies asked for help from the U.S. Border Patrol to locate a vehicle they believe may have been involved in the fire, Szudera said.
Aircraft with the Border Patrol searched an area south of Havre Wednesday morning, but did not locate the vehicle, Border Patrol spokesman Mark Kemp said.
Deputies later located a vehicle matching the description, but determined it was not involved with the fire, Szudera said.
The fires on the reservation occurred in isolated areas of the Bear Paw Mountains, forming a rough semicircle around the agency. The first of the fires was reported around midnight Tuesday, Belcourt said. The Carrie Fire burned about 4 acres before being put out Wednesday morning. Crews continued to hose down hot spots Wednesday afternoon and firefighters camped out Wednesday night to ensure it did not flare up again.
The fire started on a steep hill that runs parallel to a dirt road several miles from the agency. The fire burned up the west side of the hill, breached the crest, and began burning down the west side before it was put out. The area is steep and heavily wooded, making it inaccessible to trucks and bulldozers. Crews had to fight the fire by hand, Belcourt said, a difficult task with a shortage of available firefighters.
The majority of Rocky Boy's trained firefighters, including its elite Hotshot crews, are deployed elsewhere, Belcourt said. More than 80 tribal firefighters are combating blazes in Glacier National Park and other fires near Bozeman, he said.
About 18 firefighters with the tribe's natural resources department, and the Bear Paw Volunteer Fire Department responded to the Carrie fire, said tribal fire prevention technician Harold Watson. The crews built a fire line around the fire using shovels, then let the fire burn out, he said.
Three or four smaller fires were reported early Wednesday morning, and burned out themselves or were easily contained, Belcourt said.
With a shortage of firefighters, safety is the number one concern, he said.
"We always keep safety in mind," he said. "If it looks like it's getting out of control, we will do something different. Most of our firemen are very fire savvy."
The Muddy Creek Fire was reported about 7 a.m. Wednesday, Watson said. The fire may have burned for several hours before it was reported, he added.
Firefighters had trouble with the fire Wednesday morning when it grew from 3 acres to about 10 acres, Watson said. Crews just off the Carrie Fire were sent to Muddy Creek, where they worked until relief arrived Wednesday evening. A specialized fire crew from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation in Great Falls was called in to support the volunteer and tribal firefighters, Watson said.
The crew, an initial attack team, consists of highly experienced firefighters specially trained to combat fires by hand, Watson said. The team arrived about 5 p.m. Wednesday.
The fire lines set at Muddy Creek by teams Wednesday night still held this morning, Watson said, adding the fire was still burning within the fire lines. A series of arson fires on the reservation claimed hundreds of acres of grasslands last year. The largest, in April of 2002, burned more than 200 acres.
Those fires were easily accessible, unlike the fires Wednesday, Belcourt said.