Montana Firefighters' Memorial Park

Retired volunteer firefighters Earl Linger, center right, and Ralph Hoffman raise the flag as Butch Ripley, right, puts lettering on a temporary sign at the Montana Firefighters' Memorial Park in Laurel on Monday.

CASEY PAGE, Gazette Staff

A memorial to honor Montana’s firefighters is taking shape in Laurel after languishing for years.

On Monday, about a half-dozen retired firefighters with the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department and a crew from River Ridge Landscape Co. of Laurel worked to lay sod, plant roses and erect a sign announcing the site of the future firefighters memorial.

Two of the former firefighters also raised a crisp new American flag on a tall flag pole that is flanked by two shorter poles. One will be for the state flag, while the other pole will be for a firefighters flag.

Butch Ripley, a retired firefighter, sat on a chair in front of a blackboard and carefully placed stick-on letters for the new temporary sign. To his left stood a large statue of a firefighter, which eventually will be moved to the center of the memorial.

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Montana Firefighters' Memorial Park

The landscaping plan by River Ridge Landscape for the Montana Firefighters' Memorial Park in Laurel on Monday.

Laurel firefighters still have a ways to go and an estimated $150,000 to $250,000 to raise before the memorial, located next to the city’s safety complex at 215 W. First St., is finished.

But phase one is underway.

“The full scope of this is very large,” said Ken Olson, a former Laurel mayor who served 22 years with the fire department before retiring. “The effort is being rejuvenated. We’re trying to get it going in the right direction,” he said.

Officials broke ground on the memorial in 2004 with approval from the Legislature and then-Gov. Judy Martz.

The memorial is to honor Montana firefighters who have died in the line of duty or who gave more than 20 years of service.

Not much happened over the next 13 years. But in 2013, a $1,000 grant from the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation paid for trees to be planted at the site. And last year, the three flag poles, a concrete walkway and platform were all installed along with some lights.

The slow pace of progress, however, nearly cost Laurel the memorial.

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Montana Firefighters' Memorial Park

Butch Ripley puts lettering on a temporary sign at the Montana Firefighters' Memorial Park in Laurel on Monday.

In the legislative session earlier this year, a senate committee considered a bill that would have moved the memorial to the Capitol grounds in Helena. The sponsor of Senate Bill 267, Sen. Jill Cohenour, D-Helena, said in February that Laurel had been unable to complete it for some time and that it should be moved to a more centrally-located place.

Firefighter organizations from across the state also backed moving the memorial to Helena.

Brian Dennis, a Laurel firefighter and treasurer for the memorial project, said in February that fundraising and logistical problems slowed the effort.

Despite the earlier problems, Olson said, the Laurel firefighters are earnest in their desire for the memorial. “We want to have this completed. Things are coming together better than before. We’re back on spot,” he added.

Initial design plans were ambitious and the price tag was more than $1 million, Olson said.

The firefighters have since teamed with River Ridge Landscape for a revised design.

Steve Lehenbauer, owner of River Ridge, said one of the firefighters asked if he could help. “I said, ‘Sure, I’ll help you,’” he said.

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Montana Firefighters' Memorial Park

Retired volunteer firefighters Jim Hatten, left, and Earl Linger, center, help Kirt Christmann of River Ridge Landscape with the sod at the Montana Firefighters' Memorial Park in Laurel on Monday.

Lehenbauer, who was aware of the potential for the memorial’s removal from Laurel, said he designed a new plan that was more attainable.

The memorial will have a gated entry, where the rose bushes are being planted, at the corner of the lot. A concert pathway leads to the circular heart of the park. The firefighter statue will be in the center of the circle.

Ringing the circle will be five-foot-by-five-foot granite panels. Each panel will accommodate 192 names. The panels will have room for engraving on both sides. Landscaping around the memorial will include a mix of shrubs, perennials, annuals and trees. There also will be a drip watering system.

Lehenbauer said he is donating some of the work. “Let’s get this phase one done,” he said.

The firefighters are taking a more low-profile approach to fundraising, using word-of-mouth and one-on-one contacts to raise the money needed to finish the memorial, Olson said.

Public education about the project is an opportunity to let people know “we’re alive and going forward,” Olson said.

“We’re a far, far cry from” the $150,000 or so needed, he said. “But that’s not going to deter us. We’re putting the effort of every person we can into it. We will have this accomplished in the next two years to ensure the proper respect is (paid) to our fallen brothers and sisters,” Olson said.

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Federal Court, Yellowtone County Reporter

Federal court and county reporter for The Billings Gazette.