BUTTE, Mont. — Montana Highway Patrol officers told Bill Feaster he could not pass the Rader Creek barricade and get to his home. It was too dangerous. The raging 19 Mile Fire was right on top of the Feaster family house, which Bill had built himself on a rocky knoll in Upper Rader Creek.
Bill knew he had to get there or he would never see it again — danger be damned.
Feaster, 58, works at the Montana Resources mine in Butte. He called his two daughters Tuesday when he first heard the fire was growing and moving in their direction. The girls were busy trying to evacuate the family’s seven horses, but through the phone Feaster could already hear the fire blazing. He told them to turn out the horses and leave everything behind.
Despite threats of arrest and without consulting his family, Bill met his daughters at the barricade and continued on alone in a roundabout way to Sage Meadow Circle in Upper Rader Creek.
He pulled in ready to fight, but his opponent had already struck. A burning ember, probably, had been spit from the blaze, sparking a fire. Flames were licking around the gutters as Feaster got his water pumping and doused the metal roof before they could spread.
It was the beginning of Bill’s 24-hour vigil to save his home and his life.
“It was horrific,” said Feaster. “I’ve never known terror before like that. It was absolutely terrifying.
He said the scene reminded him of a war movie. Small fires burned everywhere, randomly, growing and shrinking and growing again. Blowing embers flew through the air. And of course there was the main muscle of the fire, which chugged through sage, timber, barns, homes and whatever else got in its path.
He saw a house about a quarter mile from him go up in flames and then he heard two or three explosions, probably the propane tanks giving out. He estimated flames went 200 feet into the air after the blasts and died down soon after. Nothing remained of the home.
On his property, there were times the smoke was so thick Bill couldn’t see past the end of his shovel. Feaster estimated the wildfire came as close as 10 feet from his door. Yet he continued to spray sparks with water until his well was warped by the heat and his cistern went dry. At that point he had only the shovel and pick axe to bang out flames. When he began to feel overcome by the smoke, he would lay down in the grass to get to some higher-oxygenated air before rising again to resume his post. He had a bottle of oxygen, too, which proved necessary.
“I don’t think a person could have survived in here without the oxygen,” he told The Montana Standard Thursday. “I had a full bottle, and I felt that really saved me.”
Sometime during the night, he opened the door to an outbuilding that was fully engulfed. The fire chewed through the new oxygen with a vengeance, and Feaster was blown across the yard, landing on his back.
“I felt in danger the whole night,” he said. “But I built my house with my wife and kids. We built this house, and we’re not going to let it go up without a fight.”
His family felt the danger from afar. His cellphone was out of battery during the five hours of the main onslaught of the fire, and they had no way to contact him until he called in about 10 p.m.
“At least I knew he was still alive,” said his wife Julie. “As for how long he was going to be alive .,” her voice trailing off. They spent the night with friends out of the way of the fire while Feaster fought on alone.
Feaster grew up in Wyoming, where he had seen his share of wildfires. He moved his family to Rader Creek about eight years ago, and they built their own home out of timber from their backyard. The Feasters were entirely off-grid and used well water, wood heat and solar energy. In case of emergency, a backup generator was on site but rarely used.
It was home. Feaster built a tack shed, a few outbuildings, bought seven horses and built them a corral. He loved their little spread, but he did always fear a big fire. He cut trees around the home years ago to give himself a buffer zone in case a big blaze took hold.
“If I hadn’t cut trees around the house, I’d of lost it for sure,” he said.
There was one little pine, “a perfect little Christmas tree” that Bill didn’t have the heart to cut, that stayed near the home. It burned to the ground.
The house still stands.
The tack shed, and everything inside, was reduced to ash. A stack of lumber and firewood was burned, along with the corral for the horses and $3,000 worth of hay. Gone, too, is the sawmill the Feasters used to build the house. The solar panels melted, as did the well and the cistern. A small greenhouse that they used to grow vegetables was incinerated, too.
Despite the destruction around him, Bill feels like he did the right thing having broken the barricade and risked his life.
“If I hadn’t, everything would have burned,” he said. “Everything I had would have burned up.”
Forest Service professionals strongly disagreed.
Nineteen Mile Fire information officer Mariah Leuschen said mandatory and recommended evacuations are issued not just for the safety of the public, but for the firefighters as well. There are number of hazards in a fire zone, and not just the flames themselves. Rolling debris, snags, and heavy equipment litter the landscape and aircraft dropping water and retardant can be dangerous to those below.
Another man who defied a mandatory evacuation order suffered serious burns to his arms and hands and had to be taken to St. James Healthcare, according to Leuschen.
Julie Feaster said, however, that it is hard to argue with her husband’s results.
“Our house is still there, he saved the house,” she said. “He literally saved the house.”
As for the horses, they all survived, said daughter Jessica. However, the family now has no way to take care of them.
When the family returned to the home on Wednesday to get the horses, “it was pretty scary pulling a trailer and seeing the fire right next to us. But they are fine,” Jessica said in an email to The Standard. “We may be trying to find really good homes for them because we pretty much lost everything but the house. The corral, horse shed, saddles, and about $2,000 to $3,000 in hay are all gone.”
Information from: The Montana Standard, http://www.mtstandard.com