'Remarkable' effort to save Paradise landmark


August 31, 2023

Annie Wooden

Paradise Center volunteers Dave Colyer and Karen Thorson survey the grounds after the River Road East Fire burned around the center. There was no damage to the town cemetery next to the center.

When the River Road East fire erupted August 18, a community of volunteers jumped into action. With the fast-moving fire burning to the north and south of the town of Paradise, an immense coordination effort was enacted quickly to save structures.

More than 15 homes and 55 structures have been lost in the blaze, which has now burned more than 17,000 acres and has hundreds of crew members working to contain it. But dozens of other homes and structures within the town were unharmed by the fire.

The Paradise Center is a community, visitor and arts center housed in the former Paradise School building. The brick structure was built in 1910, and when the school closed in 2013, volunteers formed an organization to preserve the building. It now houses generations of historical artifacts, as well as an in-depth display of Glacial Lake Missoula. A railroad display is under construction and the center is currently fundraising for a mini roundhouse display that will be constructed on the walking trail outside. Thousands of hours have gone into the exhibits at the center, and the River Road East Fire was a major threat to all of that.

"The time and effort that would have been lost would have been devastating," said fellow board member Karen Thorson. "Thousands of hours have gone into this place and there are irreplaceable items."

Dave Colyer is president of the Paradise Elementary School Preservation Committee and was a fire chief with the Plains-Paradise Rural Fire District for 12 years. He was one of the first to arrive at the center when the fire exploded on Friday, August 18.

"The amount of people and equipment who showed up here was amazing," he said of the effort to lay hoses around the center and protect the building. He estimated that there were 50 people at the center that afternoon.

Walking around the grounds of the Paradise Center, it's an eerie feeling to see just how close the blaze came to the structure. Colyer was certain that if the fire had moved to the hill to the west of the Paradise Center, the auditorium would surely have been engulfed. "This town landmark would have been gone," Colyer expressed.

On August 18, Colyer had first gone to River Road East to see if he could be of assistance. He had then gone home and when he heard on the scanner that the fire had jumped to the north side of the Clark Fork River, he headed to the Paradise Center. Another retired fire chief, Sanders County Commissioner John Holland, also was one of the first to arrive at the Paradise Center to lend a hand.

Colyer stated that at one point when the fire was raging behind the center, firefighters had considered doing a back burn up the hill. A dozer was also brought on site to help establish a line to protect the structure. Colyer said much of the credit for the response that Friday afternoon goes to James Russell, the current chief of the Plains-Paradise rural district. "James did something that's quite remarkable as a mobile incident commander," Colyer stated. He added that the quick explosiveness of the River Road East fire is something he has never seen in his time as a firefighter. He also commended all of the fire districts in Sanders and surrounding counties who responded to help the community of Paradise.

Colyer and fellow board members John and Karen Thorson met with The Ledger last week to discuss the coordination that helped save the Paradise Center. Last Friday, there were nearly a dozen fire engines and heavy equipment using the center parking lot as a staging area. "We're thankful to the crews here," John Thorson said.

With the structure now out of immediate fire danger, the Paradise Center volunteers are brainstorming additional ways to protect the structure and its historical treasures. Colyer and the Thorsons last week discussed putting in a sprinkler system and other preventive measures and will now look for funding opportunities to put an emergency plan in place. They would also like to place the windows in the basement of the building. "You hope something like this never happens and if it does you hope for the best," Colyer said last Friday. "This was the best possible outcome for us." With that, he said it's important for people to realize that the fire is not over. "People need to check on your neighbors."

About midnight on the evening of Sunday, August 20, another iconic building in Paradise went up in flames. The Hermes family's barn sat along Highway 200 just east of Paradise for nearly 90 years.

The Hermes family bought their farm in 1919. In 1937, Herman Hermes built the new barn, which was originally painted red and white. Herman was grandfather to Kay (Hermes) Nygaard, who still lives on the property, along with other family members. She shared some of her family history last week, looking through photos and news articles.

Nygaard said her grandfather Herman settled in Chinook, then was in Eureka working in the lumber industry. He then moved his family to Paradise. The property was originally full of timber. There were five Hermes children, including Kay's father Ed, who took over the family dairy in 1946. Nygaard said she and her siblings milked cows at "6 and 6 every day."

Family member Kent Newbold was grateful for the quick response when the old barn went up in flames. "Firefighters responded within 10 minutes," he said. "Our sheriff's office and local firefighters went above and beyond." The barn was completely destroyed in the blaze, but a large metal silo still stands next to its location. The cause of the barn fire is still unknown, according to local authorities.

Nygaard and other family members evacuated on Friday, August 18, as the River Road East Fire grew. While they were allowed to return home Saturday evening, Kay stayed with her sister Carol until Sunday. "I'm glad we got out of there," she said of evacuating. "You could hear trees bursting on the mountain in the fire."

Annie Wooden

A family book of memories created by Jill Hermes shows the original barn at the family's property, the silo and the new barn that was originally painted red. The "new barn" burned on August 20.

The Hermes family also owns property on the south side of Highway 200 and the railroad tracks. Family members watched the entire mountain side burn on August 18. The property on the mountain side is home to a small cabin that was built by the family in 2000. As the fire calmed from welcome rains last week, the family discovered that miraculously the cabin was unharmed by the fire. "It burned all around it. I don't know how it's still standing," Nygaard expressed.

The landscape looks different without the old barn rising as you drive east out of Paradise, but there are countless paintings and videos for the family to preserve its memory. Nygaard said she was at a garage sale several years ago when she found a painting of the barn that Connie Beil had done in 2008. "I said I recognized that place," and took the painting home, she said. It now is a treasured memory of her family history.


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