BOZEMAN — Could you imagine driving into a small town and everything’s on fire?
“There were open flames everywhere. You could hear propane tanks hissing. You could smell gas. You can smell plastic’s burning. You know there were cars burning,” said Bozeman Fire Deputy Chief Mike Maltaverne.
Maltaverne was one of five first responders from Gallatin County who went to Denton to help out with the West Wind Fire.
“The initial reports we got was that it was bad, and for our incident commanders to put that type of language, you know that gets us all—gets our interest peaked and we knew something was happening.”
And something was happening.
“We were estimating 24 primary structures or homes and then of course probably another 20 outbuildings. Significant loss in any community, let alone a small town like Denton, you know that’s not a big town, only a couple hundred people live there,” said Maltaverne.
And still, Maltaverne says that’s not all that was destroyed.
“Equally significant to that community was the loss of their large grain elevator,” he said.
But these Gallatin County emergency personnel weren’t there to just look at the damage.
“We come in as a team of managers and there’s a delegation. They give us the authority to manage that incident for them, which helps the locals because it allows the locals to get back in their communities, take care of their own properties, their own families, get back to their day jobs and then we manage this large incident for them.”
But what has this firefighter so concerned is something he’s never seen in his 30-plus years in his career.
“Come December, you know, we should be skiing and snowmobiling and ice fishing and recreating outdoors, not fighting wildfires,” Maltaverne said.
But the West Wind Fire is something he’ll never forget.
“That’s what I remember is the sounds and then—it's nighttime and the fire seems more intense and all these homes are burnt into the foundations. It’s like something out of a movie.”
The cause of the fire was a downed power line along with strong winds ranging up to 90 mph.