GREAT FALLS — A wind-driven wildfire destroyed at least 11 homes and many other structures in the Gibson Flats area southeast of Great Falls on Dec. 1. Fortunately, no people were seriously injured. Three suspects have been charged for that fire.
Dan Sanger who lives in the Gibson Flats area was one of the first people to report the fast-moving fire early that morning.
His house lies just on the edge of a big scorch mark on a hill in Gibson Flats, now surrounded by destruction. There’s a trailer in his driveway with scorch marks going all the way up and you can see the scorch marks got right up to it. He says it was a night he’ll never forget.
“I’ve been out here 13 years and I always thought if a fire came up over that hill, it would wipe out this area and people around here. We’ve had that discussion but it was jokingly” Sanger said.
“There was a wind and pressure change in the house about 2:30 and I could smell the smoke. And I got up and I looked out the window and it was just an immense flame coming over the top of the hill. It was something else."
"It’s a different atmosphere to live out here now. Before it was pretty peaceful. You never locked your door," he continued. "Now people are locking their doors and there were people out here looting that evening after the fire was out. So there’s people nervous and scared and people see a puff of smoke, they’re calling 911.”
His property is mostly untouched but it was much too close for comfort for him. He lost a shed in his backyard but the rest of his property escaped unharmed. He knew the community would come together to help each other in a desperate time.
“We’re either born and raised out here or we moved back to dig in and live back in Great Falls. They’re on a second-generation living out here. So people lost one or two lifetimes worth of memories in a lot of these places."
"It was a unique experience seeing a fireball roll over the top of that hill,” Sanger said. "I don’t know any other way to put it and I’ve had a lot of unique experiences in my life and that’s right up there in the top two or three.”
Sanger says it will take at least a week to clean up the sites around his home. He has a background in contracting and is offering help to those that need it.