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Wind gusts carry Montana wildfires

BROWNING, Mont. - A pair of rare winter wildfires fueled by 60-mile-per-hour gusts burned buildings and forced hundreds from their homes on Montana’s Blackfeet Indian Reservation, but better weather conditions yesterday helped firefighters get a handle on the blazes.

The two blazes started around sundown Wednesday and together grew to 16,000 acres by early yesterday, said tribal spokesman Wayne Smith. At least 300 people were evacuated from homes and a boarding school; no injuries had been reported.

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“It’s probably the biggest grass fire in reservation history,’’ Smith said. “It was just a wall of fire heading east.’’

Smith estimated between 10 and 15 buildings were damaged or destroyed on the northwestern Montana reservation east of Glacier National Park. Tribal officials conducted an assessment to determine how many of the buildings were homes.

J.R. Clark, a rancher who lives north of Browning, the site of the larger fire, said he and a hired hand ignored the mandatory evacuation order and stayed to fight the blaze.

“I said, ‘You’re going to have to throw me in jail because I’m not leaving,’ ’’ Clark said. “I had to save my ranch.’’

The two of them used a tractor with an attached plow to attack the fire as it approached the main house. After working from 6 p.m. until 3 a.m., the danger had passed. They were able to save Clark’s house and another one across the highway, but a neighbor’s house was destroyed, as was one of Clark’s barns.

The wind was expected to pick up again later yesterday.

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