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Fortine wood bank volunteers help keep neighbors warm

by KATE HESTON
Hagadone News Network | January 31, 2024 11:00 AM

In an open field just past Grave Creek Road in Fortine, on a winter Saturday volunteers are loading wood into trucks, clearing snow off of wood piles and splitting lumber into burnable logs. Some volunteers are heading out to deliver loads to community members who need it.

It’s all part of the work that goes into the St. Michael & All Angels Wood Ministry. The wood bank provides supplemental firewood to low-income veterans, the elderly, the disabled and families.

“We want to give, we want to serve, we want to help, and this is just a wonderful way to do that,” said Pattian Bennett, former priest of St. Michael & All Angels Episcopal Church in Eureka and the organizer of the wood bank. 

Thirteen years ago, Ethel White took the first delivery of wood out. It was the wood bank’s first year of operation, a legacy that continues today.

While White, the former mayor of Eureka and a member of the church, can no longer make deliveries herself at the age of 87, she still chooses to spend every Saturday in the passenger seat of a family member’s car, riding along to deliver wood so people can stay warm in the winter. 

This year is the 13th year that the wood bank has been in operation at the site off U.S. 93, open every Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon during the winter months. Beyond the wood piles, there’s almost always a couple of batches of cookies to eat and a community-driven atmosphere to enjoy.

“I am just amazed and thankful for all the people who show up to help with the wood bank,” White said.

While 2011 was the first year the bank opened, Bennett began understanding that there was a need in the community the year before.

As sawmills in the area began shutting down, a lot of lumber was just sitting around, Bennett said. She was concerned about the waste. 

As someone who has kept her house warm in the wintertime using wood for 48 years, she also understood the importance and need that people have enough wood to last them throughout the season.

About seven in 100 households heat their homes with wood every winter, according to the Energy Information U.S. Administration. 

“It’s really this organic thing full of community care and compassion. It’s just grown and it continues to evolve every year,” Bennett said.

The bank operates entirely through the help and work of volunteers, most of whom are from the Fortine and Eureka area, many of whom also heat their homes with wood in the winter.

John Phelps and Sheila Murphy are two of those, who joined as volunteers at the same time. This year is their second year volunteering at the bank, a place where people can go if they are in need of wood or cannot get it themselves.

“There’s nothing wrong about asking for help,” Murphy said on Jan. 20 while volunteering. “No one should be cold.”

This year, the bank received a $20,000 grant from the Alliance for Green Heat, which aims to promote wood and pellet heating systems as a sustainable and affordable energy solution. It is the second major grant that the bank has received, following a $14,000 grant in the spring.

In the spring, the bank used the money to buy 10 truckloads of wood. That wood, Bennett said, is all used now. She also bought protective gear for people who operate machinery.

The $20,000, Bennett said, was spent on a new wood splitter, four gigantic tarps, fuel cards to help with delivery reimbursements and a wood processor. Of course, the rest of the funds went to logs, she said.

“Whatever money I get, I want to put most of it into logs. That is the main importance,” she said. 

The wood bank relies on dry logs more than anything and Bennett attempts to leave reserves for the following year, with the goal of not running out of wood when people need it. The bank has a ton of partners throughout the area, Bennett said, resulting in donations like wheelbarrows, a gate and monetary gifts throughout the community.

“People here care about the people who can’t do this themselves,” Phelps, one of the newer volunteers, said. 

Pat Flanary, from Eureka, has been involved with the bank for 11 years. He learned about the mission while he was a forester with the Forest Service and met Bennett. For Flanary, he said, the reason he continues to volunteer is because he can see the impact that the bank makes.

“I just helped a guy load his truck up that was on oxygen,” Flanary said. “That feels really good, knowing that he will stay warm.”

Moving forward, the goal, according to Bennett, is to perpetuate the bank. Most of the volunteers, while healthy and helpful, are older now. Bennett encourages younger people to get involved and help the community too.

Volunteers are essential to the continued success of the bank. Without the people who show up every week, Bennett said, the wood bank would not be successful. 

“It's just crazy good, it's exciting. It's a happy place. It’s positive, encouraging, exciting, it's a pretty wonderful place, we are making the world a better place,” Bennett said.

For more information on the wood bank, contact Bennett at 406-882-4498.

Reporter Kate Heston can be reached at kheston@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4459.

    Ethel White, former mayor of Eureka and a volunteer at the St Michael & All Angels Wood Ministry in Fortine stands next to her family's delivery truck on Jan. 20, 2024. (Kate Heston/Daily Inter Lake)
 
 
    A pile of wood, covered in snow, at the St Michael & All Angels Wood Ministry in Fortine. (Kate Heston/Daily Inter Lake)
 
 
    The volunteer hut at the St Michael & All Angels Wood Ministry in Fortine, Montana is seen on Jan. 20, 2024. Every Saturday, the hut is filled with warm drinks and cookies for volunteers. (Kate Heston/Daily Inter Lake)
 
 



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