GREAT FALLS — The recent Gibson Flats Fire just outside Great Falls is something many people, especially the firefighters who responded, will never forget.
The fire started at around 2:45 a.m. on Wednesday, December 1, on Highland Road, just southeast of Great Falls city limits. The fire destroyed 29 structures - including 11 homes - and numerous cars.
Three young men are facing criminal charges for allegedly causing fire: Brandon Cordell Bennett,, Jr. 18 years old; Jevin James Mclean, 19; and Galvinn Coates Munson, 19.
According to the Cascade County Sheriff’s Office, the teens were driving around the area the night of the fire smoking marijuana and shooting fireworks at each other in the car.
Eventually they stopped and Munson reportedly set both fires. One fire was set by shooting a Roman candle into some grass, the other was started by lighting grass on fire with a lighter.
The firefighting response included numerous agencies from both the city of Great Falls and Cascade County. Some of the firefighters who responded say the ability to work together was a major factor in the firefighting effort.
"What was going through my mind was getting to the fire safely at first. I was driving the water tender,” Great Falls probationary firefighter Cody Succom said.
"I feel the same way any time we go on a fire or a significant medical incident, that there's a human side of what we do. We train hard for fires, we study hard for medical emergencies. So we're happy to do the job and we're proud to do the job but there's always this human side of what we do,” said Great Falls Fire Rescue engineer Nolan Taylor. "It is disruptive. It's disruptive to families and property and peoples' lives are changing. So it's a little bit 'We're ready to go to work' but we can't forget there's a human element to what we do as well."
"I think with the evolving situation and all the different entities that were working on the fire, I think the big picture went very smooth from my perspective and I think our engine company definitely accomplished our mission,” said Succom.
"I got the notification at three in the morning for recall for a wildland (fire) so we rushed in, came in real quick. We didn't really know the extent of anything. So we went down the hill and I believe we ran into a member of the Belt Fire Department,” said Malmstrom Air Force Base firefighter Technical Sergeant Joseph Cappel. "He pretty much told us this fire cannot cross the line. If the fire crosses the line, it's going to shoot through the rest of these houses up to the hospital. So that was our main priority, protect structures."
"We've had a few calls in the middle of the night and you never really know what to expect. But when we first drove over that hill and got to see the entire horizon in flames it was definitely a shock and we were just kind of mentally preparing ourselves for what we were going to have to accomplish,” said Malmstrom Air Force Base firefighter Airman First Class Elijah Prieto.
"I was extremely glad that this was the career field I chose. It made me proud to represent Malmstrom Air Force Base and to be able to be a part of the community,” said Prieto.
"It was devastating, it was solemn, it was humbling just seeing how much destruction there was because we were just on our structure. When light finally broke through and we started looking around, the black was everywhere, there were houses that were down. You wish you could've saved all of them,” Cappel said.
Cascade County Sheriff Jesse Slaughter said the fact that no human lives were lost in the fire is a “complete miracle."
The American Red Cross and Cascade County Community Organizations Active in Disaster are teaming up to host a multi-agency "Resource Center" in Great Falls on Saturday, December 11, to help families affected by both the Gibson Flats Fire and last week's devastating wildfire in Denton that destroyed more than a dozen homes.
The resource center will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the Fine Arts Building at Montana ExpoPark (400 3rd Street NW), and will connect families with a resources and organizations that can help with immediate needs as well as long-term recovery.
Services provided will include mental health support, spiritual care, restoration services, housing assistance, financial assistance, distribution of cleanup supplies, and help navigating insurance claims.
For more information about the resource center event, call Shellie Creveling with the American Red Cross at 406-468-8875. Because of the tremendous generosity and outpouring of community support that has already taken place, the donation of material items will not be accepted at Saturday’s event.
If you’d like to help the victims of the Gibson Flats Fire, a Facebook page has been set up. Affected homeowners can also contact the Great Falls Association of Realtors (406-453-2752) and the Home Builders Association of Great Falls (406-452-4663).