How Denton firefighters saved the town from a catastrophic blaze

·10 min read
A line of burned cars and trucks was destroyed by the West Wind Fire that swept across Denton on Dec. 1.
A line of burned cars and trucks was destroyed by the West Wind Fire that swept across Denton on Dec. 1.

Firefighting authorities dubbed it the West Wind Fire; an apt title since it was the unrelenting westerly winds that drove the flames like a dagger pointed at the heart of Denton, Montana.

Most of central Montana had been under a high wind warning since midday Tuesday, with damaging winds that "could blow down trees and power lines," the National Weather Service warned. Later that night most of Denton's 300 residents laid down and tried to get some restless sleep, as gusts of up to 65 mph whistled across the eaves and rattled the windows.

After midnight, the first calls began coming in, warning that a fast-moving grass fire was burning southwest of town.

"I got the first phone call about 3 o'clock Tuesday morning that we had a large fire 10 miles north of Stanford," recalled Dusty Saisbury. "With the 60 mph winds we were experiencing, it was headed straight for Denton."

What sparked the West Wind Fire is still under investigation, but a news release issued by NorthWestern Energy on Thursday suggests wind stress placed on the energy company's power lines that night could have been the root cause.

"While the cause of the fire is under investigation, it appears to have originated from a high wind event involving a NorthWestern Energy power line southwest of Denton," the news release states.

Saisbury works as supervisor of Denton's Roads and Maintenance Department. It was his job to start up the town's water tender truck and head toward the incoming flame wall along with the rest of Denton's volunteer firefighters.

"At that point in time, it was west of town and still on the north side of the railroad grade," Saisbury said of the West Wind Fire's early progress. "Two hours later we were battling it, and trying to keep it on the north side of the highway."

Area map showing the burn path of the West Wind Fire
Area map showing the burn path of the West Wind Fire

Grass fires are a common occurrence in central Montana and not unheard of even in the depths of winter, but with no snow on the ground and gale force winds at its back, the threat posed by the West Wind Fire was more ominous than any typical grass fire.

Add to that an extended D4 drought had plagued the region since late June. D4 is the most extreme level of drought identified by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and it had already sucked any remaining moisture from the area's vegetation.

"With the drought season we've had, we had a severe amount of Kochia," Saisbury noted.

Kochia is a bushy wild shrub that proliferates during drought conditions. It's a serious concern for wildland fire management because it burns readily and will break off at the stem creating a rolling fireball. In the southwestern United States Kochia is sometimes referred to as "Mexican fire brush" or simply "burning bush."

"That stuff catches fire and it just tumbles," Saisbury said. "The wind catches it and It's like a game of hopscotch or leapfrog."

The West Wind Fire's path toward Denton followed a narrow strip, generally confined to an area along both sides of Wolf Creek. Despite the wind, the drought and burning tumbleweeds, firefighters were initially successful in keeping the flames confined to the creek bottoms that pass to the north of town.

"We thought we had it pretty much stopped until the railroad trestle started on fire," Saisbury recalled. "The railroad ties just fueled things even worse."

Central Montana Railroad's trestle crossing Wolf Creek is a total loss.
Central Montana Railroad's trestle crossing Wolf Creek is a total loss.

The Denton volunteers' firefighting efforts were on the edge. Had the winds subsided even a little bit, they may have been able to contain a majority of the damage to the largely undeveloped northern edge of town, but it was not to be.

"We thought we had the train trestle pretty well contained," Saisbury said, "but then we got a large gust of wind. Hot embers from up on the railroad bridge — that's what got the elevator."

Like many small Montana communities, Denton's grain elevators were once the most recognizable features of the town's skyline. Privately owned by Robert Peck, Cody Lee and David and Brock Linker, the four elevators were fully operational and held approximately 100,000 bushels of recently harvested grain when embers from the West Wind Fire ignited their century-old timbers.

There were small fires going around the elevator, but it burned from the top down for the most part," Saisbury said of the elevator fires.

The intensity of the grain elevator fires set off a series of cascading events. Driven by wind gusts consistently surpassing 50 mph, embers from the 200-feet-tall elevators landed amid nearby stacks of large round hay bales, neatly aligned in five rows, each 250 to 300 feet long and containing thousands of tons of hay.

Denton grain elevators are fully engulfed by flames at the height of the West Wind Fire.
Denton grain elevators are fully engulfed by flames at the height of the West Wind Fire.
The grain elevators that once dominated Denton's skyline are now a hot pile of smoldering ruin.
The grain elevators that once dominated Denton's skyline are now a hot pile of smoldering ruin.

"It had crossed the highway ... and was working its way along the railroad grade," Saisbury recalled. "They managed to keep it pretty well up against the railroad grade and away from the fuel tanks and the state shop. It followed that railroad grade down until hot embers and ash caught these hay bales on fire.

Nearby trucks and cars parked adjacent to the bales were quickly incinerated, leaving behind charred and smoking hulks. By then firefighters had been battling the blaze for more than 10 hours. Not knowing how or if the raging inferno could be contained, public safety officials made the decision to evacuate the town.

"At that point, the Farmers Elevator was burning from the top down," Saisbury said. "It was sending embers and debris clear over the tops of the cottonwood trees three and four blocks away."

At around 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Denton's warning siren sounded, and a line of cars and trucks began moving east toward the safety of Lewistown.

While Denton was largely uninhabited at this point, the battle to hold back the West Wind Fire was in some respects just beginning. A total of 177 firefighting personnel from across central Montana had converged on the town, with overall operational control handed over to the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC).

Aerial view of the path of the West Wind Fire, which at one point was burning on both sides of the small Montana town.
Aerial view of the path of the West Wind Fire, which at one point was burning on both sides of the small Montana town.

Fire was now advancing eastward across both the north and south sides of town. However, fire crews had gained an advantage over the flames in establishing a defensive perimeter that, if it held, would protect the core of the community from wide-scale destruction. Once again, it was the wind-driven intensity of the burning elevators that undermined their best efforts.

"The stuff on the ground we had pretty much under control," Saisbury said. "It was the embers and hot ash that was flying off that elevator. With a 60 mph wind, it was carrying two, three and four blocks. Pretty soon we were getting structure fires. That accelerated everything."

To be clear, no wall of flame ever swept through the town. Instead, it was a rain of burning cinders that sparked the large majority of Denton's residential fires.

A drive down Lehman Street on Denton's southern border exposes the hopscotch pattern, where two homes remain intact for every other one reduced to a pile of charred wood and twisted metal roofing.

"We were trying to do everything all at once," Saisbury said. "We had engines trying to combat structure fires. We had our fire crews, DNRC crews and out-of-town crews trying to deal with everything else going on around town. We were going structure by structure trying to keep them from igniting the next ones."

Little more than the charred remains of a washer, dryer and bathtub can be identified in this structured burned in the West Wind Fire.
Little more than the charred remains of a washer, dryer and bathtub can be identified in this structured burned in the West Wind Fire.

More bad news was still in store for the Denton firefighters. With nightfall approaching on Dec. 1, officials from NorthWestern Energy warned DNRC's incident command center that electrical service was about to be cut off to the town.

"We had between 40 and 50 power poles that were damaged or burned by the fire," explained NorthWestern Energy's public information officer Jo Dee Black.

NorthWestern Energy was forced to confront the possibility that if the badly damaged distribution power poles were to collapse, there was a real possibility that downed power lines could spark additional fires.

"We had five crews in the area ... that were working to replace those poles that had been damaged," Black added.

The loss of electricity was more than an inconvenience to the firefighters in Denton.

"Due to the power outage, the pumps to our town's water supply had no electricity to keep our water supply flowing to the wells," Saisbury explained. "It was just before dark when we completely lost all water."

It was dark, fires were still actively burning across Denton's southern neighborhoods, and the town had no water.

The stressed firefighting crews began to set up portable water holding tanks at the high school football field, filling them with water drawn directly out of Wolf Creek. Later that evening they established a second holding tank closer to the center of town near the Denton Fire Hall, filled with water trucked in from across a two-county area.

While a majority of the destruction from the West Wind Fire was centered on Denton's southern edge, the fire also swept across the town's northern flank, surrounding the town in flame.
While a majority of the destruction from the West Wind Fire was centered on Denton's southern edge, the fire also swept across the town's northern flank, surrounding the town in flame.

Saisbury gave high praise to all the fire-fighting crews, many from communities with fewer than a dozen firefighters on their roster, who came to help the people of Denton when the call went out.

The town of Roy lies 54 miles east of Denton, with fewer than 150 residents. Their volunteer fire department includes just nine people.

"The Roy Fire Department had their main truck here with a water cannon," he said. "Those guys — I've got to give them a lot of credit."

Before daylight on Dec. 2, the worst of the West Wind Fire had passed. In under 36 hours, the fire had scorched more than 10,600 acres and destroyed 25 homes, 18 secondary structures and six commercial properties including the four grain elevators. Roughly a third of the houses along Denton's southern border are a total loss.

By 1 p.m. the following day the electricity was back on in Denton, and stunned residents began returning home — if they had homes to return to.

Right now we have a lot of displaced people," Saisbury noted of the town's immediate needs. "We've got people who have completely lost their homes, their belongings. That's a big one for me. Food, water, supplies, anything that common sense would tell a person."

The remains of a large tractor swept by Wednesday's fire sits at Denton's southwest corner.
The remains of a large tractor swept by Wednesday's fire sits at Denton's southwest corner.

A relief fund has been opened at Opportunity Bank of Montana to help those affected by the West Wind fire in Denton, along with several verified GoFundMe web pages.

The Denton Fire Relief Fund was opened with an initial deposit of $2,500 and an additional $5,000 in matching funds.

Checks can be made payable to the Denton Fire Relief Fund and mailed to Farmers State Bank, a division of Opportunity Bank of Montana, at P.O. Box 1047, Denton, MT 59430. Checks and donations may also be made at any Opportunity Bank branch in Montana.

All donations will be managed locally and are fully tax-deductible. Questions may be directed to Opportunity Bank Vice President Brandi Schweigert at 406-932-5317 or to Austin Mapston at 406-350-0463.

So where does Denton's future lie following the West Wind Fire disaster? Will the residents who lost so much return and commit themselves to the future of the small Montana town?

"I don't think Denton's going anywhere," Saisbury said with confidence. "You may not see a giant grain elevator here again ... and we may have a few people from this place who decide they don't want to try again, but when it comes to the general public of Denton, Montana — we're fighters. They'll rebuild."

David Murray is Natural Resources/Agriculture reporter for the Great Falls Tribune. To contact him with comments or story ideas; email dmurray@greatfallstribune.com or call (406) 403-3257. To preserve quality, in-depth journalism in northcentral Montana subscribe to the Great Falls Tribune.

This article originally appeared on Great Falls Tribune: Was Denton, Montana damaged in the West Wind Fire?