BROWNING, Mont. (AP) — Gusty winds fueled major grass fires on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in northwestern Montana Wednesday night and forced evacuations, officials said.
One fire started southeast of Browning just after 5 p.m. and burned about eight miles east to the community of Blackfoot, tribal spokesman Wayne Smith said.
He did not know how many acres had burned so far but said U.S. Highway 2 from Cut Bank to Browning was closed.
No injuries have been reported and there was no immediate word of property damage.
The fires forced the evacuations of about 20 homes in a small community known as the Boarding School, The Great Falls Tribune reported, while KSEN-AM in Shelby said that several homes east of Browning were also evacuated.
Another large fire was reported north of Browning at about the same time and was being spread by sustained winds of between 35 mph and 45 mph.
"Local police, fire and EMS crews are everywhere. Responding where they are able to," tweeted Shannon James Augare, a state senator from Browning. "Please keep these individuals in your prayers."
Blackfeet Law Enforcement Chief Greg Gilham told Tribune that officials are evacuating residents in the area as the fires continue to burn.
Gilham said that the fires were started by what was believed to be power lines that were blown over by high winds. One fire that burned east of Browning had already been put out. Gilham said that two more were burning on the southeast and southwest sides of the town.
"We're just in the middle of trying to evacuate houses that are in the way of the grass fire," Gilham said.
National Weather Service meteorologist Chris Zelzer in Great Falls said a 61 mph wind gust was recorded in Cut bank just before 6 p.m. Wednesday, and a 72 mph gust was recorded in Heart Butte south of Browning a few minutes later.
"There's a lot of reports in that range," he said.
Zelzer added that windy conditions were expected to continue through the night as a disturbance moves over the mountains.
"Sustained winds in that area, at least along the slopes of the Rockies, will stay pretty high," he said.