A Slow Burn
Smoldering coal seams threaten the Tsis tsis’tas
Story by Clarise Larson, Photos by Van Fisher
The smoke steadily billowed from the ground ahead of Keene Bends, who walked toward the large gash ripped into the side of a hill. He walked to its edge but took a step back after looking down into the blackened cracks oozing smoke.
“Don’t get too close,” Bends said, still eyeing one of the cracks, squinting to see how deep it went beyond the dozen feet visible. “You can feel it in your boots.” Indeed, the heat seeped through boot soles like warm sand on bare toes. It was a comfort against the cold chill of spring, but the smell of the sulfur brought reality back.
“This has been burning long before me, and I’m sure it will burn long after I leave,” Bends said
The small section of the valley on which the coal seam has burned for years is a part of the thousands of acres Bends ranches on. The land is just starting to show signs of life after a wildfire last August turned it into a landscape of blackened earth.
It’s the first time Bends has come close enough to look down the seams he wished weren’t there. He was curious, but there was caution in the way he stepped. The land that has been eroded by the tennis-court-sized seam is unstable. Surrounding it are smaller cracks full of heat too hot to hold your hand over it for more than a few seconds.
Coal, like the seam residing on the land Bends ranches, is no anomaly on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation. In fact, coal is abundant — but as climate change exacerbates wildfire conditions, the coal begins to ignite, and in turn, begins a growing cycle of wildfires threatening the reservation.
“It’s a reality of being from the Northern Cheyenne reservation — fire is just something you live with here,” Bends said.
Coal is romanticized in American history. It has become an economic powerhouse and established one of the country’s most iconic working class jobs. Coal is by far the most abundant energy source in the country. It provides 23.4% of the nation’s electricity and more than 500,000 jobs, according to the Society for Mining, Metallurgy & Exploration.
The bountiful coal just beneath the topsoil and at times breaking through the surface is scattered across southeast Montana, and ignites easily. But once lit, coal seams can burn for decades, and in turn, can ignite the land around them with even a simple gust of wind and enough fuel.
“They could burn for 10 years, they could burn for 100 years, and some might even burn for 1,000 years,” said Ed Heffern, a retired geologist with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Climate change is causing a dramatic increase in both the number and intensity of wildfires across the West. The Northern Cheyenne reservation recorded 74 wildfires in 2021, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Right now, there are approximately 239 coal seams actively burning on the reservation. Most seams are nearly impossible to put out or to predict when they may ignite into a wildfire.
A burning coal seam ignited the largest wildfire in Montana in the past four years, the Richard Spring fire in 2021. The wildfire burned more than 170,000 acres of land along the Tongue River and to the edges of Lame Deer last August — including more than 22,000 acres of Bends’ ranchland.
Fear of wildfire is customary to the people who reside across the reservation, but fear — or even acknowledgment — of coal seams is almost nonexistent.
Many people are unaware of these seemingly mundane cracks in the earth and the damage they can cause. There are little to no mitigation efforts available to remove or stop coal seam from igniting wildfires, due to the lack of understanding of the issue, and the lack of funding available.
Bends, an enrolled member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, leases around 27,000 acres of land each year from the Northern Cheyenne reservation and uses it to ranch cattle just northeast of Lame Deer. The Richard Spring fire burned about 80% of that land. Fire crews stopped it before it entered Lame Deer, but it still managed to burn large portions of the reservation and forced the town into an emergency evacuation.
Bends isn’t new to wildfire. His family has been ranching on the reservation for generations. Ranching is a part of who he is. He is accustomed to wildfires — he remembers spending summers of his youth protecting his family’s ranch from wildfire.
But things are changing.
Wildfires are igniting easier and more frequently than ever because of climate change. Increased drought is drying out vegetation making for prime wildfire fuel. Even though Bends’ land is beginning to heal, trails of blackened vegetation and dead trees still linger.
“It’s been burning for I don’t even know how long. It comes all the way down this valley,” he said, pointing to the Garfield Peak mountains and the valley line that breaks through the rolling hills. “It’s just following the fuel.”
For Bends, his dread of the coal seam on the land he ranches is apparent. A dug-out fire break line surrounds the smoking coal seam — a necessary precaution to prevent the fire from spreading if it ignites. But, there is no guarantee.
Once a wildfire burns on land where coal resides beneath it, the coal is lit. As long as the seam has oxygen, it will continue to burn. And as long as it’s burning, it can ignite the land around it and start a new wildfire birthed from previous coal-burning fires.
Bends has spent years driving past the coal seam. He’s watched it grow over the years spanning across the valley. He’s watched it steadily spit out smoke in the dead of winter, the snow around it melted away from the heat.
“A dead giveaway of a coal seam fire is you’ll notice the smell before you even see it,” Bends said of the dirty, burnt aroma it exudes. The charred smell of it is a reminder that the land isn’t safe.
“There have always been coal seams here on fire, but now it’s really starting to chain,” said Scott Studiner about the reciprocal nature of coal seams. Studiner is the Fire Management Specialist in Ashland, a town just off the reservation and where many tribal members also live.
Studiner said the danger of coal seams igniting in southwest Montana is that the frequency that they are burning is higher than ever before because of the increase in wildfires.
“As firefighters and local people, we don’t get a break,” Studiner said. Even in the middle of March, still months from typical wildfire season, Studiner said he’s waiting for the call that a coal seam has started a fire nearby.
Given the dry climate of the area, the land is no stranger to wildfires burning each year — it’s almost an expectation. As drought conditions worsen, Studiner said something needs to change to make coal seam mitigation efforts possible in southeast Montana.
Currently, Custer County Department of Emergency Services officer Cory Cheguis proposed a FEMA grant of more than $400,000 that would benefit the reservation and southeast Montana’s efforts to mitigate coal seam igniting wildfires on the land. The grant could be used to map the coal seams and hire personnel to manage the issue across Montana.
His proposal has not yet been granted by FEMA, and according to Cheguis, FEMA is largely unaware of this issue.
At the front entrance of the Tsis tsis’tas tribal office, a sign reads “Out of defeat and exile they led us back to Montana and won our Cheyenne homeland that we will keep forever.”
Tribal members hold their traditional teachings in high regard in their decision making, Bends said. Many traditional members of the tribe still hold the words of the prophet Sweet Medicine above the pressures of poverty and unemployment.
“Stand and protect your land and your people,” Sweet Medicine said to the Cheyenne people. And for now, his words remain true. Though there is a divide across the tribe on whether or not to mine the coal, the coal on the reservation remains currently untouched by developers.
It is estimated that the reservation sits on 23 billion tons of coal, according to a BIA Administrative Report on the Status of Mineral Resource Information for the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation. It’s one of the densest coal deposits in the U.S. Coal can be seen breaking the surface of the hills surrounding and crumbling down the hillside of Highway 212 along the stretch between Lame Deer and Ashland.
Coal started to form around 60 million years ago when the land began to rise from a shallow sea, said Heffern, who also worked for the Northern Cheyenne Research Project in the late 1970s. The reservation now resides in the heart of the Powder River Basin, the largest coal-producing region in the U.S. It’s a long stretch of coal-filled land across southeastern Montana and into northeastern Wyoming.
Coal developers line the Powder River Basin and near the reservation. Lame Deer’s neighboring town, Colstrip, has boomed in population and revenue thanks to the 54-year-old Rosebud Mine. The mine ranks as one of the largest coal mines in the U.S. — and emitted 15 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in a 2019 study by ClimateWire.
But the mine could be trouble. It is estimated to run out of coal within the next three to five years. Without expansion, the plant could shut down, and with it the revenue it brings. The approximately 800 full-time jobs the mine provides could run out for the people of Colstrip and those on the reservation who travel to work at the mine.
This puts extreme pressure on tribal members to reconsider coal development. The tribe’s neighboring reservation, the Crow Indian reservation, accepted coal mining on its land in 1974, and coal mining is now the reservation’s main source of revenue, according to Bloomberg Law.
Yet, despite the multitude of pressures to mine, the Tsis tsis’tas tribe persists against it. But coal still burns on the reservation.
It was Randy Elliott’s second day at his new job as fire protection director and fire chief on the reservation when the Richard Spring fire ignited. Elliott, an enrolled member of the Tsis tsis’tas tribe, was in charge of evacuation and protecting houses in Lame Deer.
“I mean, how do you fight the nature of the beast?” Elliott said. “You just try to be prepared.”
Randy Elliott sprayed more than 4,000 gallons of water on a coal seam that cuts alongside the highway from Lame Deer to Ashland this August when it caught fire. But, even months later, he said he’s confident it’s still burning beneath the surface and he’ll be fighting it again soon.
In early March, Elliott received a new emergency fire vehicle through CARES Act funding and other outlets like the American Rescue Plan Act and the Eastern Action for Montana funding. It is equipped with 400 gallons of water, and the tribal council agreed the truck will stay with him 24/7.
“This truck stays with me at all times. That way, I’m available to hit the field at any time because the quicker I can get there the quicker we can put the fire out,” Elliott said.
But mitigation efforts need to go beyond one new emergency vehicle. Along with hiring Elliott as fire protection director and fire chief, the tribe also hired enrolled tribal member Angel Becker as the tribal disaster and emergency services coordinator. Becker and Elliott work together to spread awareness and develop a protocol for the people of the reservation from wildfire disasters and coal seam mitigation efforts.
“There’s a lot of people who don’t know it or understand it,” Becker said about the dangers of coal seams igniting. “We want to get the word out, we really do — because it’s devastating.”
Becker said she thinks grants are the first step toward awareness of the issue of coal seams and informing people about the dangers they bring to the reservation. For many people living in Lame Deer, Becker said most don’t even know about this issue.
“I think that they’ve heard of coal seams, probably the majority of them, but never realize that they can burn on forever and can be as huge as this building — it blows my mind,” Becker said as she sat in her double-wide trailer office.
The proposed more than $400,000 FEMA grant that targets coal seam fire mitigation efforts is still waiting for final review. Becker said the grant is a necessity to further research coal seams and begin the process of mitigation and extinguishing them — if even possible.
Some of these coal beds are 20 to 40 feet thick,” Heffern said. Extracting the more than 200 actively burning coal seams requires a lot of labor and money that just isn’t there yet.
“We’re all stumbling through it,” Becker said. “But once we get that funding we’ll have a jumping-off point. We can establish a protocol on what we can do and start the process of fighting them.”
In late February, the Custer County department of fire services received a $50,000 grant to map and gather data on the number of currently actively burning coal seams in the county. The flyover conducted by Cory Cheguis, Custer County Department of Emergency Services officer, used infrared cameras to identify the 239 active coal seams burning on the reservation.
Custer County and the tribe work together to fight wildfires in southeast Montana. Across four counties, there are 1,768 actively burning coal seams, according to data collected from the flyover.
“Our first fire of every year is a coal seam fire. It’s the same place every year — the same coal seam every year,” Cheguis said about a coal seam on Liscom Creek Road that borders the Custer National Forest. “It takes an hour and 15 minutes from the time we get paged to get down there, so you get there and it could be 500 acres already.”
According to the BIA, firefighters are only aware
and monitoring 59 known coal seams on the reservation. That leaves hundreds of coals seams going
“I see the impact of fires every year,” Cheguis said at his office in Miles City. He recently got a flatscreen TV installed above his desk to better see the tiny red dots that scatter the screen. The dots represent a cluster of coal seams he identified during the flyover he conducted. The dots cover the screen like abundant freckles across the map.
“We used to say fire seasons, but now we’re in fire years,” Cheguis said. “It’s not a season anymore. It’s a year-long event.”
Cheguis is hopeful that the proposed FEMA grant will make more people aware of the issue, and open the doors for more research and mitigation efforts toward coal seam. He said with climate change exacerbating wildfires across the West, wildfires are burning longer and igniting easier due to drier climates and short winters.
“On a hot summer dry day it takes nothing for the fuels to ignite from these,” Cheguis said.
The approval of the FEMA grant would finally raise awareness of coal seams and would benefit not only the Northern Cheyenne’s efforts to mitigate coal seam igniting wildfires on the land but the surrounding areas too, Cheguis said. If nothing changes, southwest Montana could be in trouble.
Approximately 2% of the land in Montana has burned per decade since 1984 according to the EPA, and Montana is projected to see an approximately 95% increase in the severity of widespread drought by 2050, according to the 2015 America’s Preparedness Report Card.
“In the last 10 years the [wild]fires seem to get worse every year,” Cheguis said.
And Bends agrees. Driving through the land he ranches, the grass is beginning to lighten up, a welcome sight from its blackened state this past August. Burnt bases and fallen trees line the hilly landscape.
Bends said it seems like every decade another major wildfire threatens the reservation. He still remembers the fire of ‘87 that hit his parents’ land when was a teenager. He recalls spending long days with his parents moving cattle away from the fire creeping through the land. The memory of running through burning grass, feeling like his boots were about to melt his feet off.
Those memories are distant, but the reality is the same: fire is devastating the land. And they seem to be getting worse.
“There’s a century it burned,” Bends said, pointing to a line of burnt trees from the Richard Spring fire. “Which is kind of a sign that maybe things are intensifying — or changing.”
For years, perhaps even decades, coal seams like on Bends’ land can sit slowly burning beneath the surface. Bends does what he can to prevent the seam on the ranch from catching fire to the land around it. And for now, it’s working. But Bends still worries that one day it will catch fire. And it just might.
A SPECIAL PROJECT BY THE UNIVERSITY OF MONTANA SCHOOL OF JOURNALISM
ADDITIONAL FUNDING SUPPORT FROM THE GREATER MONTANA FOUNDATION