HAMILTON – After hundreds of Bitterroot Valley residents were displaced from their homes Sunday by a fast-moving wildfire, hundreds more stopped what they were doing to offer their help.
“You need to see for yourself what’s been coming through our door,” said Jenny Erickson, the American Red Cross volunteer managing an emergency shelter set up in a Hamilton church on Monday morning.
As she pointed the way toward another room, people walked past carrying cases of bottled water and sacks of supplies that they placed on tables already stacked high.
“We opened the door at 5 p.m. last night,” Erickson said. “People have been bringing in things ever since. We have everything from peanut butter to cup of noodles. ... The response from this community has just been fabulous.”
Lots of people left their phone numbers in case the shelter needs something else in the coming days. People needing more information can call the shelter at The River Church at 406-363-5075.
“We had a 4-H club leader come in and tell us that she knows 10 or 12 young people who would dearly love to be able to do something,” Erickson said.
Some evacuees spent Sunday night at the shelter. Erickson expected there would be more Monday.
“A lot of it depends on what the fire is doing today and if they can go back home,” she said. “A lot of people come in looking for information. Unfortunately, right now we don’t have much of that to offer.”
Erickson said the pastor at the church at the corner of Cooper and Lewis lanes is relatively new to the area.
“He told me the way people have offered to help has been amazing,” she said. “I told him it’s why I love this place. This is Montana. This is the Bitterroot. We help each other.”
The telephone has been ringing off the hook at the Ravalli County Fairgrounds. That facility offers evacuees a place to bring their livestock while they are displaced.
“We have had 20 phone calls this morning alone from people wanting to donate hay,” said fairgrounds manager Deb Rogala. “It’s just been great. People want to step right up and help how ever they can.”
So far people have dropped off horses, pigs and bunnies for safekeeping. The facility is open to anyone needing a place for their large animals to stay throughout the course of the fire.
Rogala said people just need to stop by the office and let them know that they are dropping off their animals.
Fairground officials are working together with the Bitter Root Humane Association and the Ravalli County Extension Office to put together a spreadsheet of people offering hay and pasture to those displaced by the fire.
“People here are always so willing to help,” Rogala said. “We have people calling to say that they have hay and they’ll deliver it.”
The manager of the Bitter Root Humane Association Shelter, Eve Burnside, knows what it feels like to be on both sides of that generosity.
On Sunday, she was enjoying a relaxing afternoon watching "Sharknado" when her husband first noticed smoke in the air while working in the garage.
“Five minutes later, the fire just bust loose. … I thought the sky was boiling. It was red and orange,” Burnside said. “It was really scary. My husband said we needed to get out.”
Twenty minutes later, an officer showed up at their door and told them they needed to leave now. Even though they had prepared for that kind of emergency long ago, Burnside said they still forgot things.
“You can’t take everything with you,” she said. “Family, pets and important papers. Your treasures are the last things you take. I even forgot to bring socks. I had to go buy some this morning.”
As upsetting as it was to be evacuated from her home, Burnside said she found comfort at the shelter where staff and volunteers had already arrived to answer phones and accept pets that needed a place to stay.
“They stayed up all night to help,” she said. “They are amazing people. Board members came in to answer the phones. Everyone was working together.”
At the same time, the telephone began to ring with offers of help. People called to volunteer lodging for evacuees and their pets. Others brought by food, including a large donation from Murdoch’s. Local veterinarians offered their assistance. And still others called to provide funding or their time.
“It’s a lousy situation, but without the type of people who live here in the valley, it could have been much worse,” Burnside said.
As of Monday morning, Burnside said the shelter had only taken in about eight pets. She expects that number to grow as people realize that they can’t just go home.
“Like me, people are pretty much shell-shocked right now,” she said. “It all happened so suddenly.”
The shelter had recently completed a plan for a situation like this one. And now, Burnside said they have to wait to see how it all plays out.
“At this point, we really don’t know what we need yet,” she said. “Everything is in position. We are just waiting to see what will happen.”
Donations of food and cash are helpful, as is people’s time.
“All of the cash donations are being put in a fire fund,” Burnside said. “Any expense that we have from the fire will come out that fund.”
And what are Burnside’s needs?
“I need to know that I have a house,” she said. “But, in the end, I have friends and I have family. I’m good.”