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Surrounded by smoke: Montana fires hit close to home for DSU football players

Dickinson State junior defensive back Cain Boschee runs drills at practice on Wednesday at the Biesiot Activities Center. (Shelby Reardon / The Dickinson Press)1 / 3
Dickinson State junior defensive lineman Bryce Wigert runs drills at practice on Wednesday at the Biesiot Activities Center. (Shelby Reardon / The Dickinson Press)2 / 3
Dickinson State redshirt freshman Matt Anderson (left) runs drills at practice on Wednesday at the Biesiot Activities Center. (Shelby Reardon / The Dickinson Press)3 / 3

The smoke hovering over Dickinson is nothing more than a small nuisance for most. For members of the Dickinson State University football team, it serves as a constant reminder that their home state of Montana is suffering from a barrage of wildfires.

More than 40 football players hail from North Dakota's western neighbor which has been badly burnt from a devastating fire season.

Most players come from east of Billings, but a few have family close to the flames that have destroyed over a million acres of land.

Over Labor Day weekend, redshirt freshman Matt Anderson traveled home to Eureka, Mont., to help his family temporarily pack up their home.

"There was one point where we had actually been evacuated. (The fire) was about a mile from our house," Anderson said. "They got past that. They're back in the house. ... My mom actually works at the animal shelter up there so she had 120 animals at one point in the shelter so overall she was working from 12 in the afternoon to 4 in the morning."

Anderson's parents, Wendy and Jim, stayed in a friend's fifth-wheel camper for nearly two weeks while crews battled to control the fires threatening their home.

The Caribou fire, about 20 miles northwest of the town, and the Gibralter Ridge fire, just a few miles east of Eureka, are the two top priorities, according to the Great Falls Tribune.

"I was at this gathering for the shelter, a fundraiser, which is pretty bad timing for it, but (the fire) was across the reservoir," Anderson said. "You could look across the reservoir and see it. It was just huge. And it was at night so you could see it glowing and every 10 minutes it was just getting bigger, and I could see it getting closer to where we were so I had to leave that area. I wasn't going to sit and watch it get closer to my house."

As of Tuesday night, there were at least 25 fires burning in Montana, one of which has burned more than 100,000 acres, according to a map by the Montana State Library.

Junior defensive lineman Bryce Wigert lives in Anaconda, Mont., due east of a 61,000-acre fire named the Meyers fire, which is burning west of Butte. Earlier in the year, a significantly smaller blaze struck closer to home.

"Right behind my house, like four miles, there was a fire, up by the lakes," Wigert said. "Just the surrounding area is really smoky."

While that flame was extinguished quickly, the town is still suffering from the Meyers wildfire. Anaconda High School, where Wigert played football, has adjusted sports schedules around the poor air conditions.

"The game they were supposed to play Friday got moved to Monday," Wigert said. "So varsity played on Monday, JV got cancelled. We're kind of out of it now. It's clearing up, but it's still thick. People have to stay inside."

Two hundred miles north, where senior defensive back Cain Boschee lives in Kalispell, sports teams are suffering the same fate.

"The football teams can't practice outside for more than 20 minutes and it can't be fast," Boschee said. "The cross country kids can't run. Everything's just got to be inside because it's so bad."

Air quality near Kalispell and Eureka was recorded as unhealthy on Wednesday, according to the Montana state website.

The same site deems Anaconda and the surrounding area as moderate Wednesday evening, but earlier in the day it was said to be unhealthy for sensitive groups, which include children and the elderly.

"It's a big concern with the elderly people in my town because Anaconda is such a retirement kind of home," Wigert said. "My grandma, she probably can't go outside or my grandpa. It's kind of affecting me thinking about it, but there's nothing I can really do about it."

Head coach Pete Stanton, a Baker, Mont., native said despite the natural disasters ravaging their home state, players haven't shown signs of distractions on the field.

"For the most part the guys have been pretty focused," Stanton said. "We've been thinking of them. We're very hopeful we get the precipitation we're supposed to get this week and put that behind us. It's obviously been a huge effect on the state of Montana. It's been a very difficult time for everyone."