HELENA — Although the landscape looks different in the North Hills area, every evacuated resident still has a home thanks to the efforts of local firefighters.
For four days straight, dozens of volunteer firefighter crews were joined by the Forest Service and DNRC to battle the fire and protect structures in the area.
Dense fuels, unmitigated properties and difficult terrain were a problem for initial responders. Volunteer crews averaged 14- to 18-hour days with crews working through the night just so residents had homes to return to.
“[The firefighters] took considerable risk to keep that fire from getting out and getting into structures, trying to steer it through the right saddle. It’s amazing that we’ve been able to do in under the conditions we’ve got,” said Bob Drake, Tri-Lakes Volunteer Fire Department chief.
The fire burned up to a few yards away from some buildings, but no structures have been lost at this time.
Volunteer fire departments may have a paid person on staff to do administrative work, but most volunteer firefighters don’t get paid. The majority of them work full-time jobs in addition to volunteering.
Tri-Lakes crews are composed of many different professions, including Montana Department of Transportation employees, bankers, nurses and electricians. Chief Drake himself is a certified public accountant.
Some volunteers, like Tri-Lakes Assistant Chief Aaron Helfert, contractor by trade, don’t make any money when fighting fires. Helfert said he’s proud to be able to do the job and help people out, but it can be difficult at times.
“You know you might get a call at 2 o’clock in the morning, and you’re out until five in the morning and then you’ve got to go to work at seven. It’s not always easy but somebody’s got to do it,” said Helfert. “It’s a good feeling to help people out, and it’s something I enjoy doing. Seeing people happy and knowing their structures are still there is nice to see.”
Being a volunteer means you see people at very difficult times. The firefighters also serve as EMTs for their areas and are often the first on scene for traumatic injuries and fatal crashes.
For Drake, he says it’s always been an easy decision to rush out — sometimes three or four times a night — to help his neighbors in need.
“When I run out on medical call and it’s some older lady, I see my mom,” explained Drake. “When a kid’s choking, I see my grandkid, and I treat them all like they’re my family. They count on us to be there for them on the worst day of their life.”
This week Drake is helping an elderly resident in his district set up a life alert pendant now that the man living on his own.
Having enough funding is always an issue for rural fire departments, but more than anything, they need more people willing to step up and help their community.
“Anytime we can get new volunteers, even if it’s just somebody that’s looking part time to drive a truck,” said Helfert, “or if they want to get down into putting breathers on and fighting structure fires or wildland fires. We’re always glad to have them.”
Now that the Northern Rockies Incident Management Team has assumed command of the North Hills Fire, the volunteer fire departments have returned to covering their areas and offering mutual aid.
But if another fire should start, a car crashes off the road or an elderly resident needs a lift assist, the men and women of the volunteer fire departments will be there to help their community.
People interested in becoming a volunteer firefighter should contact their local fire district or the Lewis and Clark Rural Fire Council.
-Reported by John Riley/MTN News