ALICE CREEK FIRE – Volunteer firefighters played a critical role in the efforts to stop the Alice Creek Fire from spreading; especially the night of Saturday, September 2, 2017.
Lewis and Clark Volunteer Fire Department Chief Wally Jester remembers getting a page at 7 p.m.
Volunteer fire departments from all across central Montana raced to respond to the fire near Rogers Pass.
“Nothing about this fire makes sense,” said Dave Sammons, chief of East Valley Volunteer Fire Department, with a chill in his voice.
“Fighting fires at night is dangerous,” Jester added.
Baxendale Fire, Canyon Creek Fire, Dearborn Fire, East Valley Fire Coordinator, West Valley, Lewis and Clark…Wolf Creek 877 is requesting a first alarm wildfire for Alice Creek. Have them stage as they did before on Highway 200 at the Department of Transportation yard…First alarm for Alice Creek Fire from Wolf Creek
-911 Dispatch Call
Days after that first alarm call, Jester and Sammons both paint a vivid picture of that crucial night.
“The fire was all over those mountains, I mean it was rocking,” explained Jester.
Jester, along with his crew of volunteers, watched as the flames just crept closer and closer.
“The fire is all along the fence and you can see the ring of fire, it goes out and around, clear on the far side and it disappears,” he said.
These firefighters did not know what they were getting involved in. The previous Friday, the weather forecast called for another hot, dry and smoky day with yet more red flag warning conditions. While these firefighters were battling the blaze, the fire grew nearly 10,000 acres that weekend.
“I’ve been doing this for 22 years and it still scares you; if it doesn’t scare you, you shouldn’t be out here,” Jester emotionally stated.
With mountains surrounding the fire, ranches and homes dotting the perimeter, these volunteers knew they had a very important task ahead of them.
“Our objective was to secure this line and then on the other side of the ridge secure another line so it didn’t get into another house over there,” Sammons recalled.
As these firefighters were trying to keep the fire from growing, the night changed and brought another difficult request.
Jester explained, “We got a call from command to bring strike team two back over to the maintenance shed, it was being threatened.”
The Montana Department of Transportation shed housed another potential threat – two, 2,000 gallon propane tanks.
Twelve hours after that first call to respond, Jester remembered, “All of a sudden it started to light up on the horizon and I thought, ‘well it’s sunrise’ and I watched a little farther and I saw the glow come and you just knew, that’s not the sunrise, it’s coming.”
When these firefighters got here and saw the fire burning up over this ridge, they realized this was the last opportunity they had to stop the fire from taking the DOT buildings and then hopping Highway 200. Keeping the fire on the north side of the highway was vital.
“If it gets over there, we can’t get to it. It’s going to a helicopter show only,” Sammons explained.
Whipping winds plagued the firefighters all night, but when that died down, these volunteers seized their small window of opportunity.
“We punched it to it [the fire], anchored in the black and just went to work,” said Sammons.
“I’ll betcha that attack didn’t take 20, 25 minutes and we had all four trucks back down and
watered down and ready for the next assignment,” Jester added.
A swift change in the wind, “It was immediate, it happened so fast,” Sammons said. Changed the course of the fire. “If we hadn’t stopped it here, we would be chasing it that way. It was awesome timing. Everything worked out for us that night.”
After long hours filled with high intensity and dangerous firefighting activity, everyone was exhausted.
“Thirty six hours up at one time before I finally went home,” Sammons remembered.
While Jester poignantly explained, “I don’t think people really understand that it’s all volunteer.”
Now standing in the scar, these two chiefs relive a night burned into their memories.
“It just gives you that empty feeling in your stomach that you know, we’ve got good equipment and good people, but there’s still that risk that goes with it,” Jester said.
Despite staying awake for a day and putting themselves in danger, these volunteers would do it all again.
“When you make a difference in somebody’s life, you can go to bed at night and go, that’s pretty cool what we did today, I got a good crew, we made a difference,” Jester said with conviction.
*This story is part of a multi-part special report from the Montana Television Network. In the Montana Wildfire Relief Special Report, MTN took an unparalleled look at a summer we won’t soon forget. Watch the impact of mother nature and find out how you can help those affected.