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ASHLAND, Mont. (AP) â¿¿ Ten-year-old Sheldon Limpy kicked through a jumble of burned metal and charred wood, frowning his way through the ruins where his family's house once stood at the edge of Montana's Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation.
Somewhere in the ashes were Sheldon's new ceremonial dancing outfit and the teepee his family usually stays in for the Labor Day weekend pow-wow in a nearby town. The items were lost in a June wildfire that witnesses said ripped through as if the land had been doused with gasoline.
"It's hard seeing your kids lose everything. I don't know how to explain it to them," said Sheldon's mother, LuAnna Fox, as she watched him search in vain yet again for something to salvage.
In an epic wildfire season that has destroyed hundreds of homes throughout the West, it's been an especially brutal one for the Northern Cheyenne, 4,500 people on a reservation short on resources and struggling to recover as flames devoured much of their arid land.
Including surrounding areas of southeastern Montana, dozens of major blazes have burned a combined half-million acres. That's more than 780 square miles, or about half the size of Rhode Island, and includes more than 90 square miles on the reservation.
The fires have torched 19 houses, ruined vast expanses of rangeland for livestock, prompted widespread evacuations and left older residents and others suffering respiratory problems from the pervasive smoke.
Police patrols are few, and fire victims including Fox say they've had scrap metal and propane tanks looted from their burned properties. And the protracted firefighting effort has frayed nerves and given rise to rumblings about the response.
All of it added new strains to a rural reservation where roughly one in three families live below the poverty line and almost two of three adult tribal members don't have jobs.