LAUREL — It's taken more than 10 years with plenty of starting and stopping, but the Montana State Firefighters Memorial is almost complete, and officials took another step Wednesday in planting a pair of trees at the site.
"It's been in the process for a long, long time," said Corey McIlvain, chairman of the memorial committee and Laurel Fire Department deputy chief. "It's good to see the ground broken, construction moving along and a light at the end of the tunnel."
About 20 people — fire service representatives, Laurel city officials, a Department of Natural Resources and Conservation representative and a handful of community members — gathered at the memorial park, next to the Laurel Fire Department, 215 W. First St., for a tree-planting ceremony Wednesday.
The trees were provided to the park through a $1,000 DNRC grant to Laurel as part of its designation as a Tree City USA through the Arbor Day Foundation.
During the brief ceremony, Mayor Ken Olson spoke about the importance of having the memorial in Laurel and keeping the city green before officials threw a few ceremonial shovelfuls of dirt on newly planted autumn blaze maple trees.
"It think it’s quite an honor for the city of Laurel to be granted the right to have a memorial for the firefighters," Olson said. "Throughout the whole state there are firefighters that have given their time and, in some tragic instances, they’ve given their lives."
The idea of having a state firefighters memorial in Laurel was raised in 2001 after the city hosted a volunteer firefighters' convention.
Not long after, then-Gov. Judy Martz and the Montana Legislature approved the project.
In 2004, the memorial committee broke ground with a plan to build a $500,000 memorial at the park that included a large Maltese cross, wrought-iron fencing, stainless steel water features and a 120-foot-long, 6-foot-high granite wall that could hold thousands of names of eligible firefighters.
Fire departments and other groups from around the state have been involved since the beginning, but a new group has recently taken charge with the goal of finishing this summer.
"It's been too long and we need to finish this," said Brian Dennis, a Laurel firefighter and the memorial committee's treasurer. "In the last year, we've redesigned and rethought this. It's much less complicated now."
Organizers have cut the cost of the project to about $30,000 by simplifying the design.
"What do we really want? We want something that's going to recognize those that gave their lives and a place that firefighters can come and say, 'This is ours,'" Dennis said.
In the new design, a walkway beginning from the southeast corner of the park leads to its center, which has a 343-inch diameter to symbolize the 343 firefighters who died responding to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
In the middle of that will be three Maltese crosses, with the outside two representing career and volunteer firefighters. The American flag will be in the center with the Montana and fire service flags on either side.
Back toward the beginning of the walkway and just off the path will be a concrete piece adorned with a smaller Maltese cross and the names of the Montana firefighters who have died in the line of duty.
Watching over that area will be a large concrete sculpture of a firefighter.
"We want to add trees and benches and make it a place that folks can come and reflect," Dennis said.
Dennis said all of the money raised for the memorial has come from private funds, other than the Arbor Day grant. Sources include fire departments from across the state, memorial gifts and individuals wanting to help.
"This has been a long process, but we'll have it done this summer," he said.