After the fire: Denton is rebuilding, while preparing for another fire season

Catastrophic fire that wiped out part of the town didn’t keep it down for long

By: - June 5, 2022 9:13 am

A fire reported Nov. 30, 2021, burned through the town of Denton in Fergus County. It destroyed 25 primary structures, 18 secondary ones, and six commercial ones. Beau Carter, a rancher and town council member, helped coordinate donations that poured in to help the community and a fundraising event. He believes total donations have topped $1 million, and he said Lewistown Livestock Auction and Shobe Auction and Realty were among the many companies that helped. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

DENTON — Carla Allen misses the sight of the grain elevators punching up into the sky.

“You watched ‘em burn. They were just huge infernos,” said Allen, who works just yards away from the railroad tracks where the elevators stood.

Brenda Donaldson lost eight buildings on her ranch, but she misses the trees. The fire burned most of the shelterbelt, the 150 juniper, silver maples, green ash and other trees that shielded her and her husband’s home.

Jeanne Erlandson, 92, (left) lost her home in the West Wind fire, along with many pieces her mom had crocheted. But she’ll have one salvaged piece with the Lord’s Prayer restored from smoke damage for her new home in Denton. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

“Every day when I go home, it just bothers me because it’s so thin, and I can see the house,” Donaldson said. “I never could before.”

Last year, on the heels of two other wildfires in central Montana that together burned 35,700 acres, a caller reported a fire in Judith Basin County at 11:14 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 30. The blaze quickly spread to Fergus County, and, pushed by 70-mph winds, tore through the town of Denton in less than one day.

The fire smoldered into houses and charred their insides. It ran through fields, destroyed haystacks, melted tires off tractors, and Colleen Jaramillo remembers watching animals flee.

“I could see cattle running where people cut their fences,” Jaramillo said.

Some 39 miles away in Lewistown at around a quarter to midnight that Tuesday, Ryan Peterson’s pager went off calling for mutual aid. Local firefighters couldn’t keep up with the new fire, and Peterson hopped in his truck with two others to help.

It was late fall, but by the time the West Wind fire was out, 140 firefighters would have worked on it, and volunteer firefighters would show up from as far away as Missoula, 257 miles away. Rolling over the hills toward the community of some 200 just past midnight, Peterson saw a hint through his windshield of the events ahead.

“You could see the glow 10 miles or more from town and knew it was going to be a long night,” Peterson said.

Firefighting: A volunteer operation

Mike and Heather DeVries moved to Denton from Bozeman in 2004 to buy a seed business. They were looking to do something different, and Mike had grown up in Conrad.

“So I was used to the small ag community, and this is a pretty easy fit for me,” Mike DeVries said.

In small communities, firefighters are volunteers, civilians who leave their paying day jobs when fires start. A couple of years after the DeVries moved to Denton, the local fire chief asked Mike if he wanted to join.

In a rural agricultural community, nearly everyone knows how to run a pump and drive a truck, so fighting fire isn’t a big stretch, DeVries said. Mainly, he said, firefighters need to learn fire behavior. He agreed to offer “a little time.”

Central Montana was hit with three big wildfires last fall. Since the first one, Heather DeVries keeps fixings for breakfast burritos in a freezer to feed firefighters and other responders. Her husband, Mike DeVries, is fire chief in Denton, and he said rural firefighters volunteer time away from paying jobs to help small communities. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan.)

As different fire chiefs rotated out of the job over the years, DeVries ran a few smaller fires himself, and he got to know the Bureau of Land Management and Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation crews. When the last fire chief left roughly a decade ago, DeVries stepped in.

“I became chief kind of by attrition,” DeVries said.

Last year on Aug. 1, the start of the Taylor fire was reported in Fergus County between Winifred and Denton, and it burned 22,909 acres. “I kind of thought that would be my career fire as a volunteer chief,” DeVries said.

August and September brought some rain, but not enough. On Oct. 4, the South Moccasin fire was reported, and DeVries figured the column of smoke he saw rising from the south flank of the mountains meant a project fire, one in which multiple agencies responded with several shifts.

“We sent equipment as soon as we could spare crews,” he said.

By Nov. 30, when the call about the West Wind fire came in, volunteer crews had already worked two fires that together lasted 11 days in the span of just three months, and people had winterized a lot of equipment as the season turned. Said Peterson: “You don’t prepare for fires like that in early December.”

Normally, volunteer firefighter Calvin Bronec would be in bed by 11 p.m., but he was up that Tuesday night and heard the fire pages for the Coffee Creek Rural Fire District. Bronec said crews were tired even after the Taylor fire, but he figured Denton would get called that night. He started to get ready.

“By the time I got my clothes on, we got our page,” Bronec said.

He was the first to arrive at the firehouse and started warming up equipment.

Fire dies down, blows up

The West Wind fire would bring a couple of rounds of evacuations. Colleen Jaramillo said she has brothers who are preppers, so her duffel bags were already packed when she heard Heather DeVries and her teenage daughter, Maddie DeVries, banging on her door at 2:30 a.m.

Just a couple of hours later, firefighters thought they had the blaze under control, said Mike DeVries. In town that morning, teachers welcomed children to school, and half the town parked on top of the hill to watch the fire outside of town, said Jeanne Erlandson. 

Sylvia Drivdahl, who had packed her car to leave town, drove to the Shade Tree Cafe for a bite instead. After all, she said, a man from the DNRC had told her the fire was “pretty much contained.”

On the edge of town, Mike DeVries had hoped that dawn would bring respite and quiet the blaze. Instead, a high wind kicked up, and it fanned the burn that had been on the outskirts of Denton.

“At dawn, it started to roar,” DeVries said.

Erlandson, 92, grabbed an overnight bag with some pictures and jewelry, and she and her daughter, Carla Allen, hightailed it to Lewistown with two dogs, seven cats (maybe five) and two turtles. Turtles Squirt and Lake each rode in their own 5-gallon bucket.

Other people stuffed cats into carriers and grabbed prescription medicine. Drivdahl packed her paperwork for income taxes.

“Our house burnt down in Big Timber. I’ve been through fires before,” she said.

At dawn, it started to roar.

– Mike DeVries, fire chief, Denton

After the Taylor fire, Heather DeVries learned she needed to stock her freezer to feed 50 firefighters and other responders, and she started looking for eggs for breakfast burritos.

“It’s not hard,” DeVries said. “If you have tortillas, sausage and hash browns, you can feed a lot of people.”

She ran into Allen, who keeps her own key to the grocery store — Allen shops after hours, and the owner got tired of letting her in late. She and DeVries unlocked the building, grabbed four dozen eggs or so, scribbled a note to the owner, and took off to feed crews.

‘It looked like living hell’

The fire exploded.

“They call it ‘span of control,’” Mike DeVries said. “It got big so fast in both of these fires (the Taylor and the West Wind).”

Peterson, disaster and emergency management services coordinator in Fergus County, and other county and state partners helped coordinate 60 different agencies. They weighed resources. Which crews should be deployed? Which should stay put in case fire broke out in a neighboring county?

“We hadn’t had big fires like this in Fergus County for a long time,” said Peterson, also fire warden.

Firefighters responded not just from neighboring rural districts but from Great Falls and Missoula. Chief DeVries said the Belt team, all volunteers, responded the first night to Denton, turned around to help fight the Gibson Flats fire in Great Falls, and then returned to Denton the following morning to help on the West Wind again. “That’s a good department. That’s a neat bunch.”

The 2021 West Wind fire seemed to be unseasonal, reported the end of November and burning through the town of Denton the first of December. (Provided by the Fergus County Sheriff’s Office for the Daily Montanan)

In cities, firefighters are trained to respond to structure fires, to safely enter buildings and rescue people, said Laurie Lohrer, of neighboring Hilger. “We’re not. We’re wildland firefighters. We’re always outside structures.”

On the Denton blaze, Lohrer, a training officer for the Hilger Rural Fire District, watched the wind toss pieces of buildings and metal through the air and push flames through neighborhoods, and she said firefighters could only do so much against the gale.

“As soon as a house was on fire, we’d all have to pull out and go down the next block,” Lohrer said. “It was horrifying is what it was, not for personal safety, but to think that our town was burning, and no matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t stop it because of the wind.”

Peterson, the fire warden, said they couldn’t respond to all the calls: “People tell you their house is on fire, and you don’t have enough resources to send.” 

They emptied the town water supply.

Bronec, on the Denton crew, watched his own house burn, and he tried to keep the fire from scorching other homes. His place was fine one moment, he said, and then it wasn’t. Since his family was renovating their house and not living in it, he told the Lewistown fire crew across the street that other homes took precedence.

That day in town, Bronec said he could barely see his hand in front of his face because of the smoke and ash: “I was in town fighting fire, and I drove down this street towards the fire hall, and it looked like living hell. The houses that were on fire? I don’t know, I thought the whole damn town was going to go up at that point.”

Close calls, tight spots

The whole town didn’t go up, but there were close calls.

Scott Sparks, the school principal, went home to watch the school cameras after loading the last child onto the bus: “Within 20 minutes of us vacating the school, the fire was directly behind the school.” Later, he learned a fireball had hit the school courtyard, and he saw scattered shards of glass, possibly blown in from the grain elevators.

Brenda Donaldson is a rancher and school teacher in Denton. She remembers how her students ran back down the hall to give her hugs the day they got sent home from school because of fire. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

Donaldson, a school teacher, remembers an urgency to the day. She usually putters after she sends her kids home, she said, but Sparks walked into her classroom after the children left.

“He said, ‘Get out of here. Go.’ And he was getting us out of here quick,” Donaldson said. “I naively thought, ‘OK. I”ll just go home.’ I had no idea what was in store.”

The fire scorched the family’s ranch, destroyed eight outbuildings, all their shop equipment, their tractors, four-wheelers, the trees. At first, she said, no one even knew their ranch was on fire because the smoke was so thick.

Fire trucks had rolled by without stopping, and Donaldson and her husband were spraying down their property with hoses and moving trailers to safety when they realized the bushes that leaned against the house were on fire. They finally called 911.

“We were minutes from losing our house,” Donaldson said.

Bronec lost 15 pounds fighting that fire, he said. Food abounded, but he couldn’t eat, and he figures he went on autopilot for at least a couple of weeks afterward. He said the fire took a toll on his wife and three kids too, Everly, 3, Case, 5 and Caden, 9.

“It took a while to comprehend everything that you saw,” he said.

Marion Wambach, a World War II veteran, had been hospitalized in Lewistown for Covid-19, and his house in Denton was a complete loss. He died in Lewistown in February, but he had always planned to rebuild in Denton.

“He never got to come home,” Heather DeVries said. “But he had the best attitude about it.”

In some cases, the fire burned homes from the inside out. Residents said the soot and smell were bad at first, but the town has been cleaning up. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

One close call is personal to Chief DeVries, an incident from the Taylor fire. A brush truck rolled home covered in retardant. His son had been in it. Joel DeVries said firefighters always need to have an escape route planned, but fire had closed in on him and other firefighters trying to protect a house and shop on a hill.  A pilot saw their predicament from the sky and dropped retardant to create a path to safety.

“A single engine air tanker flew over in time and doused the fire coming towards us,” Joel DeVries said. The engines took off, dragging hose. He doesn’t lose sleep over it, but Joel still wonders if they should have been there in the first place.

The fires exhausted crews, destroyed property, strained the reverse 911 computer system, altered the skyline, but Mike DeVries accomplished his top mission in all three burns: “My job is to make sure everybody goes home.” In such a small town, “everybody” includes friends and neighbors and family, his son, his daughter, separated from her parents when fire took out the road.

Only later do the stories of close calls surface, he said.

Maddie, his 16-year-old, remembers her dad hugging her tightly when he got home, still decked in his sooty green and yellow.

‘Staggering’ response from Montana, beyond

People in Denton use one word repeatedly to describe the response to the disaster: “Overwhelming.” Mike DeVries counted some 64 thank-you notes mailed to other departments that contributed firefighters or equipment.

Montanans sent clothes and money and toiletries, of course. But donors provided other items too, for community members and for a fundraising auction. Meat freezers from Steel Etc., then beef to fill it. Fishing poles for the children. Straws of bull semen. Fencing, lawn mowers and medical supplies.

“Our town hall was set up as a secondhand store for months,” Heather DeVries said. She said a lot of the items were brand new.

Donaldson, the teacher, said her 2nd and 3rd grade students would get home to find gifts on their doorstep, like a set of Legos. A fifth-grade class from Chester-Joplin-Inverness sent her students a box of games with Pictionary and Candy Land. 

The generosity in central Montana is a real thing.

– Beau Carter, rancher, Denton town council member

Someone gave the Donaldsons a snow shovel, and the Hutterites from a nearby colony showed up at their doorstep with hamburger, and they offered chickens. One kindness in particular moved Donaldson.

“Some ladies came out to my house the next day with coffee. I mean, coffee? We had no electricity, and I’ll never forget it,” she said.

Heather DeVries said she’s grateful the Governor’s Office made its response to Denton a priority. Gov. Greg Gianforte visited shortly after the burn. (Provided by the Governor’s Office for the Daily Montanan)

Gov. Greg Gianforte not only made a donation, he showed up in person right away, Heather DeVries said. She said supply chain trouble has stymied attempts by government officials to do more — “How do you get windows? How do you get wood? Bolts, screws, pipes” — but the governor gets updates on Denton every Monday morning.

Beau Carter, a rancher and member of the Denton town council, helped coordinate the stream of money and goods pouring into the community. They received specific-sized diapers for the families who had lost homes and had toddlers, pulled in some $200,000 in just one weekend, and he believes total contributions top $1 million.

“The generosity in central Montana is a real thing,” Carter said.

Open for business, new people

At first after the burn, the town was sooty and black, the smell “unmerciful,” but nearly six months later, signs of the fire aren’t obvious right away. 

Grain from the elevators was spread into a field before being hauled away, but some remnants stayed on the ground: “The deer liked it,” Erlandson said. “And the birds liked it, all that burnt grain.”

Some windows still have marks from when the responders told people to evacuate. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

The city still holds hints of the emergency, though. Mike DeVries hasn’t scrubbed off the paint on his window indicating responders had alerted his family of the evacuation: “I leave it up as a reminder, I guess.” He hopes his department can help others this season in mutual aid calls, to return the favor.

A downed powerline sparked the West Wind blaze, which burned 10,644 acres. The cause of the South Moccasin fire remains under investigation, and the cause of the Taylor fire is listed as unknown, but humans cause most wildfires, some 85 percent, according to the U.S. National Park Service.

These days, Calvin Bronec notices when juniper bushes grow too close to a home, and children still play firefighter on the school playground. A hint of wind or slight whiff of smoke puts plenty of people on edge.

Mike DeVries starts going through his mental list: “You hear those gusts, poof, the windows rattle a little bit, and you think, ‘Is my pager charged? Where’s my radio at? Do I have a pen?’”

Said Allen: “Now, when the wind blows, I think everybody just kind of cringes.”

Said Heather DeVries: “I’ve never been so excited to see wet sidewalks.”

Calvin Bronec (left), volunteer firefighter for Denton, lost his house in the fire. He and his wife had been renovating it, and they purchased a new boiler he then returned. “I had to tell them, ‘Well, the house we were going to put it in burnt down.’ And they were like, ‘Oh. We never heard that before.” (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

They’re continuing to rebuild. On the cusp of another fire season, if they’re still just seasons in Montana, rural fire chiefs are fixing up broken equipment, and Fergus County is pursuing grants. Replacing the 15- to 20-year-old radios they have will cost $2,500 to $5,000 each, Peterson said, and they could use 150 handhelds alone.

“You feel like you’re sitting well with what you have until you have an incident you don’t have enough power to take on,” Peterson said.

At Erlandson’s place, workers poured the foundation for the 92-year-old’s new home, the first new one to arrive in Denton after the fire. Orders of modular homes are taking as long as 18 months, Allen said, but the family found one already built. Half of it arrived last Wednesday, half Thursday, and they’re just waiting for a crane to put it together, Allen said.

In the fire, Erlandson lost many of the pieces her mom had crocheted, but one with the Lord’s Prayer is intact, albeit smoky, and she’ll have it professionally cleaned for her new home.

Last month, road crews were working on the bridge that went out during the fire, and NorthWestern Energy had been cleaning up in town as well. Mike DeVries said Denton had seen a flurry of activity, but he still wonders what the future holds.

“Will it be the sound of hammers building new houses or the sound of empty lots?” he said. “It couldn’t happen at a worse time, with inflation. The cost of building is now through the roof.”

Carter, for one, hopes more people decide to call Denton home in the future. The cost of living is relatively low compared to other places, he said, and it has a great school and teachers, a caring community.

Erlandson (second from left), talks with friends over coffee at the Shade Tree Cafe. “Fire is strange,” she said. “It’ll take one house, leave the next one.” (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

“It’s a long, long road to recovery, and we want more people to be part of it because it truly is a special place,” Carter said.

They still need quality barbed wire, T posts, insurance payments, but on the bright side, the fires have been good for recruiting volunteer firefighters, a hardship at times in other places.

One recent morning at the Shade Tree Cafe, a group of regulars talked about the fire, the aftermath. They were holding a party for Erlandson that weekend to replace items that burned in her home. The friends take the long way home after coffee at the cafe to drive past her place, to see the progress.

Linda Gluth, who owns the nursery, couldn’t stay long that morning because she had work to do.

“I’m going to run and plant some petunias,” she said.

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines read Mike DeVries’ name into the congressional record for his work on the fires. DeVries said he wishes everyone’s name could have been listed, but he considers the honor a tribute to all volunteers, the firefighters and emergency medical services personnel. He said he hopes the recognition encourages others to volunteer as well.

(Provided by Heather DeVries for the Daily Montanan)


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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.