Vacancy: Fire Evacuees Welcome

By Beacon Staff

WHITEFISH – After fires force people out of their homes, it is custom in Montana for neighbors to come to their aid. They bring trailers to haul livestock, offer food and provide beds, all without being asked.

It creates an interesting situation for American Red Cross, which sets up and maintains evacuation shelters.

“I don’t feel offended or hurt,” said Bernadette Larson, program specialist for Red Cross’s Kalispell office. “But they just don’t come to our shelters.”

On the morning of Aug. 4 the Red Cross opened up an evacuation shelter at Whitefish’s Muldown Elementary School for people displaced by the Brush Creek fire. Nobody showed up and by the next day it was closed. A shelter that opened up Aug. 7 in Marion for Chippy Creek fire evacuees also lasted only a day. Larson, who worked previously for the Minnesota chapter of Red Cross, said such consistent shelter vacancies are not found in other states.

She offers a two-part theory: Montanans are fiercely independent and self-reliant in general; and they are neighborly.

“It’s a whole different mentality,” she said. “In Minnesota there’s more, ‘You need to do this for me; I deserve this; I want this.’ Montanans are much more self-reliant.”

Montana respects its tradition of community camaraderie, said Gayle Wilhelm, Montana’s western region director for Red Cross.

“Montana’s a community state,” she said. “People care for each other.”

Not to mention, Wilhelm said, a lot of people have livestock and they want to go where their animals go. Pets are not allowed at the shelters.

Some people simply refuse to leave their homes. Flathead County Sheriff Mike Meehan said there’s nothing his department, which is in charge of evacuations, can do with them.

When houses are evacuated in Montana, people generally go to friends and family first, but then to neighbors if necessary. Shelters are the last resort. In Minnesota, Larson said, after a tornado – which is unique because it ruins whole neighborhoods and leaves evacuees without any neighbors to go to – or any other natural disaster, shelters would be full to the brim with 100 people or more. Population is a factor, of course, but Wilhelm said the per capita percentage of evacuees that go to shelters in Montana is low. Urban disasters, especially ones that take down entire apartment complexes, fill up evacuation shelters quickly, Larson said.

In the Flathead, people with seasonal homes can simply pack up and fly to their other home, Larson said. If someone can afford to travel elsewhere, she said, they at least have that option. People with less money are more likely to go to the shelters.

The three shelters for western Montana fires are in Marion, Whitefish and Bonner. They’re all in elementary schools, which are convenient locations in the summer because they come with a gym to put cots, a full kitchen, showers and lots of empty space.

The Bonner shelter, unlike its counterparts, has been busy since it opened, Wilhelm said, because of the large number of Jocko Lakes fire evacuees. Nearly 700 homes were asked to evacuate for that fire. Sharon Brown, a Red Cross volunteer sent in from Oregon, said the Bonner shelter fed 100 people per day for the week. Restaurants donated food and the Red Cross also has a stock supply of snacks. The district manager for Arby’s, Brown said, not only donated lunch one day but also made sandwiches at the shelter.

“That was just wonderful,” Brown said.

As of Aug. 13 the Bonner shelter was one of two open in the state. The other is in Big Timber. Some evacuees stay the night, some just eat and some come in for information and a place to regroup. Ninety-five people stayed the night at the two shelters on Aug. 12. Five or six volunteers alternate six to eight-hour shifts to make sure the shelters are open 24 hours a day.

“It’s everybody that comes in,” Wilhelm said. “Blue collar, white collar, purple collar, whatever.”

Meanwhile, the shelter at Muldown and the one in Marion remain ready to go, full of supplies but without any volunteers manning them. Volunteers are ready to go when needed, Larson said. Eighteen cots are spread out in Muldown’s gym, and boxes full of personal kit bags await evacuees. The kits have items like toothbrushes, towels and combs. The kitchen is stocked with food, half of which Safeway donated.

“We’re telling them that this is their home,” Larson said, “and they’re going to be safe.”

Volunteers primarily run the shelters, Wilhelm said. When the Red Cross declared Montana a national emergency, carloads full of out-of-state volunteers arrived, easing the burden on an already labor and cash-strapped organization. Red Cross still has to go about its day-to-day affairs and respond to other emergencies while running the shelters.

“We’re 100 percent donor dependent,” Wilhelm said. “We receive no federal dollars. It’s amazing that volunteers do all of this.”

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.