DENTON — As a backhoe rumbled across the alley, forming rough piles of charred trees and warped metal, Summer Allen gently combed through the scorched remains of what used to be Marion Wambach’s home.
In her search for anything recognizable, Allen discovered an unopened Christmas card, the name "Dad" still clearly legible on the envelope.
“We’ve been able to find odds and ends in the house,” Allen said as she looked out on an obliterated section of her hometown.
From the heap of ashes and soot that used to be books, shoes, coffee cups and everything else Wambach accumulated in his 96 years, Allen could see her own grandmother’s home across the alley. It was still standing but left uninhabitable by the West Wind fire, an aptly named and unseasonable wildfire that destroyed 25 homes, Denton’s landmark grain elevators and the train trestle and highway bridge into town last week.
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The community had been in an evolving state of emergency since around midnight Tuesday, when a wheat farmer and his wife driving home from Great Falls saw the flames along state Highway 81.
By Friday as crews mopped up hotspots and fire still flickered from the rubble of the elevators, Denton started the transition to recovery mode — a long process already marked by resilience locals are finding in the outpouring of support from each other and around the state.
“I am just thankful no one was hurt, all the people are safe. This is just stuff," Allen said, standing in the foundation of Wambach's home.
Answering a mutual aid call, firefighting crews and volunteers from around the state drove though the night and early morning to get to Denton on Wednesday. Winifred sent a notable amount of equipment, leaving their own town, also in the path of high winds, at risk.
A herculean effort kept the fire at bay most of Wednesday morning, but then wind gusts of 70 mph pushed the burn along the railroad grade. A hay pile ignited, then some semis and the grain elevators, turning Denton’s most iconic structures into a source of embers that hailed fire into the core of the community.
By Friday morning as a low fog hung over town, trucks with logos representing Custer County, Big Timber, Bozeman, and even Oregon parked at the school's ballfields for a morning briefing, strategizing a mix of monitoring for flare-ups and starting to remove hazards and debris.
"The overwhelming support we received, from Glasgow to Missoula, from Red Lodge to Havre, the people that were here, the camaraderie that went along with it, the support that we received, is just heartfelt,” Jack Cutter told a group gathered Friday. Locals like Cutter met to tell elected officials what they needed for help in the recovery efforts.
“We were in situations where you couldn't see anything, you went for the safe zone, you went for the black (previously burned areas are safer because they have no fuels), but we had to get it out. And everybody gave it their all, all agencies, all people. We're blessed to live where we are. Thank you, Montana.”
What Cutter didn’t tell the small crowd, though someone later pointed it out, is that he lost his own home north of town to the Taylor fire in August.
“They were all there for me, so I just tried to help them,” Cutter said after the meeting.
The West Wind fire is the third major fire in the region this year, public information officer Nick Holloway said.
“We need to remain mindful that this community is experiencing a lot of mental stress right now. It's very significant,” Holloway said. “We need to acknowledge that and understand how difficult that is.”
During the community meeting, Gov. Greg Gianforte emphasized the need for neighbors to help neighbors will last long after the initial clean-up phase.
“I think that we're still in this emergency mode, the adrenaline is still high, we're kind of coming down off of it. But a lot was lost by a lot of people, and in another two weeks or a month, things are going to get quiet,” Gianforte said. “ … This entire community, individual families, individuals have gone through trauma, and let's just keep checking in on our neighbors. Not just tomorrow, but a couple of weeks from now, a month. A lot was lost.”
'A monument to Denton'
Around town, people felt the blow from homes and treasured items consumed in hours from embers that landed arbitrarily, reducing one structure to a smoldering pile while leaving the one next door untouched. But the community shared in mourning the loss of the grain elevators, which one man called “a monument to Denton.”
Robert Peck and his wife weren’t just the first people to spot and report the fire, on a late-night drive home from Great Falls. Peck also co-owned one of the elevators, which he and a partner purchased more than a year ago from CHS.
After dialing 911 late Tuesday night and waking a woman whose home was in the path of the fire, Peck and his wife contacted everyone else along the highway into town to warn them of the danger. Then Peck went to work trying to save Denton. As the winds turned for the worse late Wednesday morning, he made his way back to his place east of town with his truck and water tank.
“That’s when I heard the elevator went up,” Peck said.
On his cellphone, Peck keeps a panoramic photo of the elevators, taken on a bluebird day with the sun striking the gray community landmarks with the word "Farmer's" in script on the older one.
Local lore, backed up by several websites, says the one-time record holder for world's tallest man was born right in front of the grain elevator. But more than a historical tidbit, the structures represented the core of the community — agriculture and the railroad.
Peck lost the 65,000 bushels of grain he had stored in the elevator, and the Central Montana Rail’s trestle was one of the first things to burn on the west side of town.
Carla Allen is the general manager of Central Montana Rail, which is headquartered in Denton. From a table at the Shade Tree Cafe on Friday, Allen worked to coordinate assessment of the damage to the tracks, the trestle and more. Operators had to cancel the sold-out North Pole Adventure Train on Friday and Saturday.
Carla Allen’s mother is Summer Allen’s “Grandma Jeanne” Erlandson, whose own home is across the alley from Wambach's. While still standing, it's too damaged to live in.
Eating breakfast Friday morning at the cafe, Erlandson, 92, was pragmatic about the situation.
“I got a few things that we could scrub up and that I really wanted,” said Erlandson, who had lived in her house since 1952. One item she recovered was her small poodle’s dog dish.
“I can reason this out, but she can’t,” Erlandson said of her dog.
While some of Erlandson's things like clothing might be salvageable, there's a hole burned through her living room wall. She’ll live with her daughter Carla for the time being.
“It’ll be redone somehow,” Erlandson said. “For now I’m just very happy to be here.”
Wambach, the 96-year-old veteran whose home across the alley was reduced to rubble, wasn’t in Denton when the fire closed in around the community. He’d fallen about a week ago and was alone for several hours on the floor before Summer Allen, his caretaker, found him and called paramedics.
Summer Allen cringed thinking about what would have happened if Wambach’s fall was right before the fire and no one found him before embers landed on his property.
“It all could have turned out so different,” Allen said.
Looking at the leveled block and then over to the horizon where the grain elevators should have been standing, Allen said Denton will forever be changed.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Allen said. “This is just heartbreaking. Our little town will never be the same. To see it in town, the town I grew up in, it’s unbelievable.”
Allen, the school secretary, wasn’t all that worried by the evacuation warning issued after the fire broke out. Multiple fires have burned around Denton this year. But by Wednesday afternoon, she and the principal were the last two people in the building after getting all the kids on the bus when the evacuation became mandatory.
“We’ve had fires all year,” Allen said. “But usually in December we’d be standing in snow right now."
Instead, Incident Commander Don Pyrah said it was 60 degrees at 4 a.m. Wednesday morning.
The heat came on top of a dry year. Like much of state, central Montana including the Denton area remains in extreme drought. In nearby Lewistown, precipitation for the calendar year to date is 10.19 inches compared to an average of 16.69 inches. The average temperature for November was more than 7 degrees above normal, according to the National Weather Service in Great Falls.
“This year’s been so different,” Erlandson said. “It’s so hot and so dry.”
While those in Denton have been focused on the immediate response, climate scientists are looking at how climate change may affect drought now and into the future. The 2017 Montana Climate Assessment produced by scientists in a multitude of fields notes the state’s history of multi-year to decadal-scale drought will continue to be a part of climate.
While the overall frequency of drought remains unclear, due to changes in snowpack and timing of runoff, the frequency and duration of drought during the late summer and early fall is expected to increase, models in the report predict. Rising temperatures will likely exacerbate drought when it does occur in Montana, the report says.
“Dec. 1, you don’t ever expect that (for a wildfire),” Denton's mayor, Joel Barber, said Friday.
Those who lost their homes have been staying with friends and family or in Lewistown, either at a shelter set up by the county and Red Cross or the Calvert Hotel, which offered rooms to those who needed them.
Wambach was set to come home Friday, and was worried about navigating the steps up to his house — one of the few discernable structural details that remained after the fire. Wambach knows his home is gone, but Summer Allen said they’ve tried to keep him from seeing photos of it.
“When I called him, though, you could hear him telling me ‘it’s just stuff, this is just stuff,’” Allen said.
Following the meeting with the governor, the state insurance commissioner, legislators and others Friday, after the TV cameras had left, a small group of locals lingered in an auxiliary building at the school, huddling in a circle to re-group and plan the rest of the day's work.
Back in the foundation of Wambach's home, Allen was still looking for surviving items as neighbors filtered over to offer support.
“We’re a resilient bunch,” Allen said. “You can’t kill little towns like this. We’re too close."
— Reporter Tom Kuglin contributed to this story.