SAND COULEE — It has been nearly three months since the Gibson Flats community just southeast of Great Falls was devastated by a fire in the early morning of December 1st. Members of the Sand Coulee Volunteer Fire Department were the first to arrive on the scene, and they were recognized by Governor Greg Gianforte this week for their life-saving work.
Sand Coulee Volunteer Fire Department Chief Levi McCale and Assistant Chief Chris Kindred accepted the "Spirit of Montana" award from Gianforte on behalf of the department.
The fire started in a field at around 2:45 a.m. and was whipped by powerful winds with gusts of more than 50 miles per hour. The Great Falls Fire Rescue estimated that the fire burned about 120 acres. In the aftermath of the fires, GFFR Chief Jeremy Jones said that 11 homes, 11 garages, seven outbuildings, and several cars were destroyed by the fire. Three people have been charged for causing the fire.
As Gianforte expressed his appreciation for firefighters, he presented the Sand Coulee Volunteer Fire Department with the Spirit of Montana award for their swift and heroic response.
Firefighter Luke Holzheimer said, "“It feels great, it’s a real honor. It means a lot to the guys. To get the recognition, it’s great."
“It's a terrible situation for the people in Gibson Flats," Holzheimer said. "It's a terrible day, but it showed how the Great Falls surrounding community come together and helped."
Gianforte said, "One of my greatest honors as governor is recognizing Montanans who embody what it means to be a good neighbor and serve one another. The Sand Coulee Fire Department is an outstanding example,”
He added, “As the first responders on the ground at the Gibson Flats Fire, these volunteer firefighters saved property and lives. I appreciated joining them for a burger last night in Stockett and saying thanks.”
Speaking to the effectiveness of the volunteer fire department’s response, Cascade County Sheriff Jesse Slaughter added, “Sand Coulee Fire was the first fire department on the scene. It was their quick response and leadership that set all of the responding agencies up for success. Their quick and decisive action saved many lives.”
When asked about his experience, Sand Coulee firefighter Tyler Vanaken said, "“It was definitely one of the worst fires. We were showing up and expected a little grass fire, and it ended up being two fires and we kind of rounded the corner and saw that first fire didn’t look too bad, then we saw the big fire, and that’s when everything kind of changed, and it went into more evacuating because it was already into the houses and all that. So it changed pretty rapidly.”
Despite receiving the award, Vanaken said that sense of community is what's most important: “It’s a nice honor, but it was a team effort. If it wasn’t for the mutual aid, you’re talking Belt, and MANG, and Black Eagle, and Gore Hill, and especially huge shout out to the city of Great Falls, and their quick response. Without people like them, that would’ve been way worse."