When the order came on June 26 to evacuate Ashland because of the fast-moving Ash Creek fire, residents of Heritage Living Center, an assisted living facility primarily for Northern Cheyenne elders, had to go, too.
Nineteen of the residents spent the first night at the Boys and Girls Club in Lame Deer, sleeping in chairs or on the floor.
The next two nights, the residents stayed at the Country Inn in Billings, where Mike Skaggs, president and CEO of Soaring Eagle, the organization that operates Heritage Living, had made arrangements for 14 rooms.
“We just doubled up,” Skaggs said.
Then St. John’s Lutheran Ministries in Billings stepped up, Skaggs said, and offered to have the residents stay at its new, assisted-living center in Red Lodge called The Willows.
By last Friday afternoon, nearly 40 people, including the residents along with staff and some of their family, had moved into the Willows.
On Monday, many of the Heritage Living residents were visiting and exchanging stories in a roomy dining area as staff prepared sandwiches and soup for lunch.
Edna Seminole said she was glad to be in Red Lodge where the air was clear. Smoke from the wildfire had made it difficult for her to breathe and she had to go to the clinic for treatment, she said.
A nine-year resident of Heritage Living, Seminole said she was able to grab a few things but forgot her shampoo before evacuating. Seminole said she was worried about her grandson, a firefighter on the Ash Creek fire.
“We never thought we’d be in that situation ever,” said Mary Stillsmoking, and her husband, Joseph Stillsmoking, were among those evacuated from Heritage Living.
They could feel the heat from the fire and “the smoke was awful,” Mary Stillsmoking said.
On Monday the Rev. Emmett Hoffmann, a Heritage Living resident and the center’s founder, paid the group a visit and offered the blessing as lunch was served.
Hoffmann had left Ashland about a week earlier to be treated in Billings for pneumonia. Skaggs brought Hoffmann, a popular priest at the St. Labre Mission School in Ashland and known as Father Emmett, to Red Lodge for the visit.
Hoffmann called the Willows arrangement “perfect.”
St. John’s offered to help after hearing of the evacuation, said Shelley Pierce, St. John’s foundation director. Within 24 hours, she said, St. John’s arranged for the residents to go to Red Lodge and provided them with beds, linens, medical supplies and activities for kids.
St. John’s coordinated with the Beartooth Billings Clinic, the American Red Cross and numerous volunteers in Red Lodge to prepare for the Ashland residents, Pierce said.
“It was truly an amazing thing to watch and see pulled together in such a short period of time,” she said.
The Ashland residents are staying in the Willows’ 12-unit Sojourner cottage, which was unoccupied, Pierce said.
“They made us feel very welcome. They’ve just been fantastic,” Skaggs said.
The group was greeted at the door by Red Lodge resident who was a nurse and had lived in Ashland. “She knew everybody by name,” Skaggs said.
When some of the Heritage Living residents went shopping at a Red Lodge thrift store, the managers, upon learning they had been displaced by the fire, said there was no charge for their items. “That made everybody feel more welcome,” Skaggs said.
Heritage Living has 40 residents, the rest of whom went to Broadus or are staying with family or made other arrangements.
While the evacuation order for Ashland has been lifted, Skaggs said the residents will not be returning for at least a few more days until the threat of fire has eased and the air quality, which affects many of the residents, improves.