Survivor Describes 'Growing Sense Of Panic' Driving Through Montana Wildfire


A video went viral last month, showing the view through a car windshield of a complete inferno.

Justin Bilton, 37, is driving, while his 70-year-old father Charles coaches. They had been camping in Glacier National Park in Montana when the Howe Ridge Fire closed in.

“It was kind of a growing sense of panic,” Justin says. “So at first, we really thought that the fire was still up on the ridge. As we drove into it, we realized that it had overtaken the road, and then my panic began to increase.”

Here & Now‘s Robin Young talks with Justin about the ordeal, and with Jess Kimball, one of the people who rescued Justin and his father.

Interview Highlights

On how he and his father are doing

Justin Bilton: “I’m doing pretty well. It’s been a pretty busy couple of weeks, but back to work and back home to normal life now.”

“[My dad is] doing great. It took him a little while for it to sink in kind of how much of a near-death experience it actually was. He was pretty blasé about it for a few days, and then he finally saw the video again — he hadn’t watched it — and he was like, ‘Oh, wow. That is a little bit worse than I remember.’ ”

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On how his father helped him from the passenger’s seat

JB: “He stayed really calm which was pretty amazing. … I’m just like, feeling the car heat up. I have no idea how hot it was. He kind of helped me a lot to keep me calm.”

On when they came to a downed tree blocking the road

JB: “That was the point … that I first thought like, ‘Oh, my God, we’re going to die. There’s no way I can reverse through this.’ There was no way to turn around, and it was actually my father who said, ‘We’ve got to move this tree out of the road. We have gloves.’ And the funny part of that is, he had like plastic gardening gloves. He’s 70 years old, and he wanted to get out and move, one, it’s an entire tree — which probably weighed a ton or more — and it’s on fire, as is every tree around us. What I didn’t know is that these fires create their own wind, and there was just like this really intense gust blowing the embers and coals around.

“Once we came to that downed tree, we reversed back the way we had come, because we were at a dead-end road, and the fire was between us and the only way out. So at that point, our only other option would have been to try to stay ahead of the fire on foot, and it was spreading incredibly fast. It went from like 5 acres to over 2,000 acres in two or three hours. So we reversed from the tree all the way back to the lake, and there was nowhere to turn around. I just remember, my panic was growing until we saw the tree, and then once I put the car in reverse, I knew there was a spot back there that wasn’t on fire yet.

“And so I just became really focused. I could barely see, because I no longer had headlights going backwards, I could see like 10 feet of road behind me and I just was you know hyperfocused on those 10 feet of road and not going off the road. And a funny thing is, we saw a black bear that was running away from the fire, too, like right in the road. This bear looked at us, and we looked at him, and we had the same goal, which was to get away, and the bear just kept running and we drove. And that’s when we drove down a driveway, there was a cabin there actually, and we stopped the car and jumped out and looked out to the lake and saw Jess in the boat.”

Jess, on what happened next

Jess Kimball: “I see Justin and his dad on the shore, waving. I just assumed they wanted us to leave, like get away from the fire and not be stupid. And then we started to leave, and I was like, ‘I think they need our help.’ And my friend Dave was like, ‘No, they’re fine.’ I’m like, ‘No, I think they need help, why are they still there?’ So we turned around and picked them up.”

Justin, on his reaction after he and his father boarded Jess’ boat

JB: “I was just like, ‘Oh, we’re safe. This is over,’ and just thinking about getting back to the foot of the lake. We weren’t very far from shore when the whole shoreline where we had been standing, the fire reached that point, and I distinctly remember one image of this tree, that was probably like a 70-foot-tall pine tree, that went up in flames from the trunk to the tip of the tree in like two seconds. It looked like somebody just lit a match. It was really close to where we had been. … At that point was when we realized like, ‘OK, the rental car doesn’t matter. We survived.’ And it kind of started to sink in that we almost died. I remember saying that to my father. He was like, ‘No we didn’t. We would have been OK.’ I was like, ‘I don’t think so dad. That was really, really close.’ ”

Jess, on telling her father, a firefighter, about the experience

JK: “He was the first person I called. And I’m obviously from the East Coast, so it’s about midnight or 1 a.m. when I called him, and he was like, ‘Jess, I was asleep. Why are you calling me.’ But … I think like few days later, he was like, ‘Wow, like you actually did save people.’ ”

On learning from the ordeal, and advice for others about wildfires and their unpredictability

JK: “I think I learned how important wildland firefighters are, and what they sacrifice just to protect our land and private land. It’s pretty incredible.”

JB: “With these dry conditions out West, these fires can spread in minutes, and they’re incredibly powerful and incredibly deadly. So I would just just warn anybody not to go anywhere near one, no matter how small it is at the time.”

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