BROWNING – Friday night in Heart Butte was unlike anything Clarence Comes At Night had ever seen.
Law enforcement descended as flames occasionally ascended into view as Spotted Eagle and the Family Peak Complex fire crowned in trees just miles away from the community of around 1,000 people on the southern end of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.
The message from the law was simple: Get out.
It was not a request and there was little to no time to gather anything, even pets.
Children were scooped up, sometimes without shirts and shoes and brought to a shelter on the southern edge of Browning.
“Our children are scared,” said Heart Butte resident Rebecca Rider, who has lived in the community for all of her 55 years. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
In all, 178 people signed in with the Red Cross and 64 people stayed in cots at the shelter in the ACA Complex at 80 Heart Butte Road in Browning on Friday night.
Many more stayed with family and friends elsewhere. Some stayed in Heart Butte, but law enforcement was cracking down on those who defied the mandatory evacuation ordered by the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, according to Heart Butte resident Eugene Spotted Eagle.
Authorities were expecting 150 or so people Saturday night at the shelter.
Spotted Eagle, a 49-year-old experienced firefighter for the tribe, said you could see flames shooting into the sky when they crowned trees, but he said it left him more angry than scared.
“Why is nature doing this to us?” he asked.
Others were terrified.
Like Spotted Eagle, Clarence Comes At Night has fought fires for the tribe, but becoming the “evacuee was traumatic,” he said.
“Yeah, really scary,” he said. “It felt like I was going to war or something.”
The home of his wife’s parents was right at the tip of the fire, he said.
“It’s difficult to see that stuff,” he said. “I never thought this would happen in Heart Butte.”
Comes At Night said the community certainly knew the fire was close by earlier in the week, but Friday evening was a surprise.
It caught authorities by surprise, as well.
Terry Michell, who was supervising efforts at the shelter, was on her fifth day on the job as a community help representative for the tribe on Saturday.
“The community has responded,” she said. “And that has been nice. They have really come together.”
A constant stream of people were bringing in items such as clothing, diapers and water.
The disabled and elderly were housed at the boarding school, she said, and Town Pump in Browning was providing meals at deep discounts.
And the Humane Society was going to go back in town Saturday to try to bring people’s animals to shelter.
Rider left behind pets, and she said ranchers were opening their gates so their livestock could run free to avoid the fire.
“I never thought I’d see something like this in Heart Butte,” she said Saturday. “We had a prayer circle this morning.”
Family Peak Complex consists of four fires totaling 941 acres in the southern Badger-Two Medicine area, north and west of Swift Reservoir
• Spotted Eagle – 698 acres in remote, heavy timber; actively burning in upper Lonesome Creek drainage
• Mt. Poia – 203 acres in heavy timber surrounded by rock
• Muskrat Pass – 40 acres in steep, remote heavy timber. Spotted across Continental Divide.
• Haywood Creek – 0.2 acres about 1 mile east of NF boundary
Officials said the use of aircraft in these fires may be limited due to needs on other fires.
Bill Morse, a public information officer with the Southwest Area Incident Management Team, said the Spotted Eagle fire has not impacted Heart Butte at this time.
Morse said officials have ordered 10 strike teams, which means 50 of engines for Spotted Eagle and 10 hotshot crews bringing 200 personnel.
But he said the possibility of getting that number of resources is thin.
As of Wednesday, the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise was unable to fill 2,000 requests for fire.
“We’re ordering resources but they are hard to come by,” he said, adding this shortage was “unprecedented” in the United States.
He said the Benchmark fire near Augusta is holding at 43 acres and no growth has been reported for two days. Lines cleared wood and brush and retardant lines. He said a 20- person hotshot crew and 16 smokejumpers are on scene, along with four engines and one initial attack crew.
He said if the crews can get through Benchmark on Saturday and into a mop up situation, some of the resources would be moved to Spotted Eagle.
Much of western and central Montana is under a red flag warning Saturday, including areas around Great Falls, Helena, Missoula, Kalispell, Butte, Bozeman and Billings.
The Sheep fire in the Flathead National Forest was reported at 1,595 acres on Saturday morning, the same total that was posted Friday.
The fire, which has been burning since Aug. 9, was reported to still be about 1 mile south of Essex and about an eighth of a mile from the train tracks. Essex was still under evacuation orders on Saturday.
“Today, fire behavior will depend on the influence of the approaching cold front and the persistence of smoke over the fire,” fire officials with the Northern Rockies Type II Incident Management Team said.
They said construction of a fuel break, to limit the fire from spreading and to provide a safe spot for firefighters, around Essex is nearly done. Officials said 200 structures are at risk.
Officials said Highway 2 remains closed between mile makers 178 and 185.
Tribune Staff Writer Phil Drake contributed to this story.