In some respects, Montanans can consider themselves lucky this fire season. Since Jan. 1, wildfires in the state have scorched more than 270,000 acres, yet there have been no human fatalities and little structural damage.
According to U.S. Forest Service statistics, the cost to fight fires in Montana this year has already exceeded $26 million. That figure does not include outlays for emergency services provided by private organizations like the American Red Cross and Salvation Army.
In this harried fire season, the American Red Cross of Montana has already established six evacuation shelters in communities such as Lincoln, Noxon, West Glacier and Libby. Two shelters were set up in Browning; one for evacuees from the Spotted Eagle fire outside Heart Butte and a second for motorists stranded by the Sheep fire after U.S. Highway 2 was closed Aug. 20.
For the Spotted Eagle fire alone, Red Cross of Montana and the Salvation Army have served close to 2,100 meals, in addition to providing shelter and information to hundreds of displaced families from the Heart Butte area.
Diane Wright, executive director of the American Red Cross of Montana, described the summer of 2015 as one of the busiest emergency response seasons the Red Cross has seen in years. While the organization has sufficient material supplies to address Montana’s immediate emergency needs, the organization’s financial and volunteer resources have been stretched thin.
“What this has done is depleted our supplies,” Wright said “That’s the biggest thing that we need to stay on top of. We have to remain prepared for our communities across the state so that our supplies are ready and we can respond immediately when we are called upon to do so.
“Whenever we get a call from an emergency official or fire department, it is our goal to have volunteers are on the scene within two hours to help,” she said. “We have over 300 volunteers in disaster teams mobilized across the state that respond to those disasters.”
That goal was tested last Friday, when the unexpected sudden advance of the Spotted Eagle fire forced more than 400 people from their homes in and around Heart Butte. Wright said Red Cross volunteers in Great Falls responded in the middle of the night to get advance evacuation supplies up to Browning.
“They packed up the disaster trailer full of cots and left in the middle of the night to get that shelter up and running,” she said. “We saw over 400 people that next day, and even though many people were able to stay with family members, on Saturday and Sunday many came back in to eat. We provided three meals a day, snacks and hydration.”
Those efforts were helped enormously by contributions from area merchants.
“We needed snacks, we needed diapers, baby bottles, water, Gatorade. All we had to do was pick up the phone and call the local Albertsons stores here in Great Falls,” Wright said. “They said, ‘What do you need?’ I personally picked it up Saturday morning and they had it all packed up and ready to go. It’s a remarkable, generous spirit that managers there work with us to do that.”
The evacuation center in Browning remained open Monday night, providing shelter to around 32 people still unable to return to their homes.
“And we will remain open for as long as we are needed there,” Wright said.
She said the most immediate way for people to assist the Red Cross in carrying through on that promise is with financial donations.
“One of the things a financial donation allows us to do is — rather than keeping a storehouse of supplies and needing to deliver them, we are able to buy exactly what we need in the community where it’s needed.”
Wright noted that it is a natural inclination for people to respond with donations in times of crisis, but that the Red Cross’ largest effort in Montana is not responding to wildfires or floods, it’s the consistent needs of people impacted by home fires.
Evacuees sign up for services from the Red Cross in Browning
“So many people respond emotionally to a crisis like this and they’re supporting Red Cross in that particular disaster, but the bigger picture, the one that we have to think about 365 days a year is investing in preparedness,” she said. When you support Red Cross disaster relief you’re not only helping us respond to the wild fires, you’re also helping us prepare for that next disaster. You’re investing in readiness.”
HOW TO HELP
To volunteer or to make a donation to the American Red Cross, log on to its website at redcross.org/Montana. You can also visit the American Red Cross of Montana state offices at 1300 28th St. S. in Great Falls.