Generosity Rises from the Ashes

Montanans help one another during and after historic wildfire season

COLUMBIA FALLS — A few weeks ago, Mike Sandel and Matt Folz of Xanterra Parks & Resorts walked into Lake McDonald Lodge and were inundated with a familiar smell from the past summer.

In August and September, thick smoke from the nearby Sprague Fire settled in the Lake McDonald Valley. Eventually, the smog became so thick that Xanterra Parks & Resorts decided to close the lodge and surrounding shops for the season. Except for the occasional firefighter walking through, everything remained untouched until Sandel and Folz arrived.

Inside the gift shops they found thousands of pieces of clothing, blankets, plush toys and other souvenirs, much of it with a slight scent of smoke. Sandel said most of the merchandise was still good but just needed to be washed. But if the items were washed, they couldn’t be sold as “new.”

Instead, Xanterra’s Columbia Falls employees hatched a plan to donate the goods to area charities. On Dec. 8, Sandel, director of retail, Folz, director of sustainability, and transportation director Dave Eglsaer donned red hats and loaded a Red Bus with donations for the short drive down the street from Xanterra’s offices in Columbia Falls to the Garden of Eden thrift store.

Xanterra donated upwards of 5,000 items worth more than $80,000 to the Columbia Falls thrift shop, the Soroptimist Thrift Haus in Whitefish, the Flathead Food Bank in Kalispell and the Blackfeet Nation.

“We wanted it all to stay local so that we can help our community,” Sandel said.

Allen Christopherson, founder the Garden of Eden, said the large donation was especially helpful around the holidays.

“This shows that Xanterra isn’t just some huge corporation; it’s really part of this community,” he said.

Xanterra’s donation was just one example of the generosity that emerged from the ashes of this year’s devastating fire season in Montana.

As wildfires raged in September, Dave and Natalie Elliot, owners of the Montana Shirt Company in Whitefish, wanted to find a way to help. They designed and sold a shirt with the words “Montana Strong” on the front and within two weeks had raised $25,000 for the Montana Fire Relief Fund. The Montana Television Network matched what the shirt company raised for a grand total of more than $64,000 for fire victims. The shirt company also made a large donation to the Glacier National Park Conservancy and its Sperry Action Fund to help the National Park Service respond to the fire that destroyed the iconic Sperry Chalet.

“So many people were impacted by the fires this summer, and we just wanted to find a way to help,” Dave said.

Doug Mitchell, executive director of the Glacier National Park Conservancy, said his organization  was overwhelmed by the charitable response following the fire at Sperry Chalet. The Conservancy raised $150,000 in the weeks following the fire and was able to pay for a structural assessment and stabilization work at the chalet this fall.

In Eureka, Tracy McIntyre said she is still amazed by her community’s response when two fires scorched thousands of acres of land over the summer. The largest of the blazes, the Caribou Fire west of Lake Koocanusa, destroyed a dozen homes in West Kootenai. McIntyre, who helped coordinate donations at the town hall, said within hours of people being evacuated, truckloads of supplies started showing up in Eureka. She said she also fielded calls from people offering up their homes for evacuees.

And the generosity didn’t end after the fires were out. Dwayne Keim, a resident of West Kootenai, helped organize the construction of eight new homes this fall. He said dozens of people from the local Amish community helped rebuild the homes and that a number of people were able to move in this month.

“A disaster really brings out the best in people sometimes,” he said.