HELENA — Getting a call for mutual aid, at any time, is not unusual for any fire department in Montana.
Organizations regularly lend assistance to their neighboring departments for everything from fires to medical calls.
However, the call for mutual aid the Helena Fire Department (HFD) received on Dec. 1 was unusual. It was two counties and 170 miles away. The West Wind fire was bearing down on Denton, and they needed help.
After receiving the call, the HFD joined up with crews from Lewis and Clark, West Valley, Baxendale, East Valley, Montana City and Wolf Creek to make the three-hour journey to rural Fergus County. They, and other agencies across the state, rushed to help the small community.
“Rolling into Denton we were quickly met with a roadblock on the main road into town. The bridge had burned away, so that was kind of eerie. Of course, we’re in the dark so we had to find a way to actually get into Denton which was through some wheat fields,” said HFD Lieutenant Robbie Bennett.
Working with other agencies, the four men from HFD were first assigned to protect small farms and ranches in the area. That changed around 2 a.m. on Thursday, when they were called to assist with structure fires in the town.
“The firefront had passed by the time we had gotten into town,” explained HFD firefighter Michael Fobert. “There were downed powerlines everywhere, some were energized some weren’t. Burned-out vehicles, smokey conditions, trees were blown down."
"So there are lots of different hazards than just the fire itself and with the sustained winds that they had the houses that had burned down were creating just as much of a problem as another fire in town because it was spreading embers everywhere.”
Fire crews worked between suppressing structure fire and stopping spot fires before they developed into something more problematic. HFD firefighter Landon Zimmerman says that night it was unlike anything the men had experienced in their careers.
“I had been in other ones where you had similar numbers, I was on the Bridger Foothills Fire and stuff like that,” explained Zimmerman. “It was similar numbers but they were very spread out, and that small of a town being hit that hard was hard to see and sad because we were working next to people that were like ‘that’s my Grandma’s house’ or ‘that’s my aunt's house’ or whatever."
"So that was a new level for me, working that closely with basically homeowners being like ‘Nope we’re still trying to fight fire and we’re still trying to protect the rest of our town.’”
The firefighters worked pretty much constantly for the next two days with suppression and clean-up operations. After twenty-four hours of travel and firefighting efforts with no sleep, the task force was then released.
In total, the West Wind Fire burned more than 10,000 acres. 25 primary structures, 18 secondary structures and six commercial structures were destroyed. However, much more could have been lost were it not for the fire crew from across Montana that came to help out.
“I think it was really good seeing all the different departments throughout the state all coming together. You know we’re all firefighters regardless of what department we work for,” said Fobert.
Throughout it all, the HFD firefighters say there were humbled by the generosity and caring of the people of Denton. Individuals that had just lost everything, brought firefighters coffee and asked if there was anything the fire crews needed.
“That was probably one of the most devastating things I’d seen in my career. I just can’t imagine what the town is going through. Those buildings that are still left there, but also those that lost everything. I just can’t imagine the support they need, probably the funding. It’s really going to take a toll on that town but hopefully, they can bounce back and recover,” said Bennett.
A call for mutual aid is never a guarantee that assistance will come. Agencies can decline to offer aid, although fire departments say it’s rare in Montana and usually only when there is another emergency happening in their area.
Any agency, whether it be a small fire department like Denton or a large one like the Helena Fire Department, recognize they can’t do this job alone but know help is on its way when a mutual aid request is made. After all, that’s what firefighters do. They help people that are in need.
More information about ways to support and help the people of Denton can be found here.