Metro

‘I thought we were going to die’: Father and son escape raging Montana wildfire

When Elizabeth Bilton received a call from her son last week telling her that “everything is OK,” she immediately knew it wasn’t.

“That means something went terribly wrong,” she said. “[Children] sugarcoat it.”

Her son, Justin, and husband, Charles, were safe — that much was true. But her motherly instincts were right: The camping trip the pair had been on in the backwoods of Montana almost took a deadly turn.

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On Aug. 12, Justin and his father became temporarily trapped in their car along a winding road in Glacier National Park, after a wildfire that started on the ridgeline not far from their campsite quickly spread, burning acres of trees and creating a wall of flames and smoke that surrounded them on all sides.

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“I have never seen anything like it,” Justin, 37, said in a telephone interview Monday. “It was just like looking at a war zone — like a nuclear bomb had gone off.”

The Boston resident was on the last leg of a two-week vacation with his 70-year-old father when they found themselves caught in the harrowing situation, hoping to make it out of the fiery woods alive.

Justin and Charles had driven down a dead-end road on Sunday to get to a trailhead that would take them to a campsite roughly two miles into the wilderness.

A fire burns next to Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park in northwest Montana on Aug. 12.
CHRIS PETERSON/HUNGRY HORSE NEWS VIA AP, FILE
A fire burns next to Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park in northwest Montana on Aug. 12.

A “small fire, by Montana standards” had started on Howe Ridge, near the lake, the day prior, he said. At first, both father and son were unfazed by the smoke billowing in the distance. They even talked to some fire crews in the area who told them the fire was unlikely to spread.

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“It didn’t look like it was growing at all,” Justin said.

Justin Bilton
Justin Bilton (left) and father Charlie.

But the winds picked up Sunday evening, shortly after they made camp, and things intensified. Suddenly, Justin said, the fire “exploded.”

“It grew . . . in a couple of hours,” he said. “I told my dad, ‘I think we need to get out of here before it gets any worse.’ ”

The pair gathered their gear and headed through the woods toward their rental car, which they planned to drive back along Lake McDonald Road — the way they came in — to safety.

“Everything looked fine for the most part,” Justin said of the start of their drive. “We thought, ‘We can get out of here.’ ”

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Initially, there was some “fire near the road,” he said. But after they took a few more turns, the situation deteriorated.

“It was an inferno. It was just walls of flames on both sides of the car,” he said. “The car started getting hot really fast. It felt like it was a 100-degree day, and your car had been sitting in the parking lot all day.”

A video taken from inside the car as Justin and his father tried to escape the inferno shows embers flying toward the windshield like a swarm of bugs on a highway.

To the right and left of the vehicle, limbless and charred trees were glowing through the smoky forest air. Flames lined the dirt road and seemed to reach up toward the car like orange snakes, making a slight hissing sound.

In the video, which has gone viral, a worried and shocked Justin can be heard praying that they make it out alive, as his father tries to calm him down, repeatedly telling him “you’re doing good, you’re doing good.”

That’s when things went from bad to worse: a tree ravaged by the intense fire had fallen down across the road, blocking their escape route.

“I saw that and I thought we were going to die,” Justin said. “I thought we were trapped, there was no way we could turn around on the road.”

With his father’s guidance, Justin kicked the car into reverse and drove the vehicle all the way back to the trailhead at the end of the road. At times, Justin said, he was going as fast as 40 miles per hour.

“It was absolutely insane, I don’t know how I was able to keep the car on the road,” he said. “But somehow — a few prayers and a Higher Power — we stayed on the road.”

Once they were back at the trailhead, which was safe from the fire for the time being, they walked down toward a nearby cabin to see if anyone could help them. That’s when they saw a small boat floating on Lake McDonald, with two people on board.

“We flagged them down and they came over and grabbed us, and we got onto the boat,” said Justin. “Ten minutes later, we were on the water and we saw the whole part of the lake shore where we had been standing just go up in flames.”

By Tuesday, Justin and his father were headed home to Boston, with little more than the clothes they had been wearing when they escaped the blaze two days prior.

Looking back, Justin said he’s grateful that a series of fortunate events — and the help of strangers — got him and his father out of the life-threatening scenario.

“There are so many ‘what ifs,’ and things that seem too unlikely to be coincidental,” he said. “If another tree had fallen behind us while trying to reverse, we would have been dead. And if [those people] weren’t there in the boat, we would have been dead. That’s the most amazing thing to me.”

Justin Bilton lookied out at the wildfire from the safety of a boat.
Justin Bilton
Justin Bilton looked out at the wildfire from the safety of a boat.

Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.