On The Job: Montana

On June 11, 2009, a three-alarm fire destroyed a five-story warehouse in Butte, MT. The 45-by-100-foot structure was built in 1902 of Type IV heavy timber construction by Armour and Co. and originally was used as a meat warehouse, although it had many uses over its 107-year history, most recently to store tires. Three stories were above ground and two were below ground. The building, with a flat, built-up tar roof, was one of seven brick warehouses along a two-block section of Butte's historic "Warehouse District" on Iron Street. There were no fire detection or suppression systems in the building.

The Butte-Silver Bow Fire Department was dispatched at 3:18 A.M. to a structure fire at the Whalen Tire Distribution Warehouse, 749 South Utah Ave. Engines 1 and 5, both 1,500-gpm pumpers, and Ladder 1, a 100-foot tower ladder with a 2,000-gpm pump, responded with six firefighters under the command of Senior Captain/Shift Commander Malcolm Gustafson. Engine 1 laid a 200-foot, five-inch supply line from a hydrant at Wyoming and Iron streets to the B/C corner of the building. Ladder 1 laid a 200-foot, five-inch supply line from a hydrant at Utah and Iron streets to the B side. Engine 5 was positioned at the A/B corner. There were no civilian life-safety issues as the business was closed at the time.

Initial Operations

Firefighters found fire on the main floor of the building in the center and west end. The fire was already extending to the second and third floors via a stairwell and a freight elevator shaft. Crews stretched a 150-foot, 1¾-inch attack line from Engine 1 into the interior first floor for a limited interior attack. A large amount of fire was venting from a window on side C and a 1¾-inch attack line from Engine 5 was used to knock it down. A 150-foot, 2½-inch pre-connect with a 500-gpm portable monitor was deployed on side A from Ladder 1. The interior crew operated inside the building for eight minutes before withdrawing due to heavy fire.

Firefighters initiated defensive operations at 3:30 A.M. Ladder 1 placed two 1,000-gpm aerial master streams into operation on side B. Engine 1 placed its 1,000-gpm deck gun into operation on side B. Engine 5 was repositioned to the alleyway at the C/D corner, laying a 400-foot, five-inch supply line from a hydrant at Aluminum and Wyoming streets. This engine placed two 2½-inch lines into operation. One line supplied a 500-gpm portable monitor on side B and the other was positioned on side C in the alleyway.

To Protect Exposures

A three-story vacant refrigeration warehouse was attached to side C by an enclosed walkway on the second floor extending over a 15-foot alleyway that separates the two buildings. Firefighters prevented the fire from extending to this structure. One crew of two members was assigned to enter the C exposure and check for any fire extension via the attached walkway. Exposure D was a three-story ordinary-construction commercial property measuring 20 by 100 feet. This building was attached by a one-story, masonry-block loading dock. Firefighters made a trench cut in the roof midway between the two buildings. The trench cut was performed from side A to side C and was two feet wide and 30 feet long. A five-man crew operated on the roof with a chainsaw and a 1¾-inch attack line for protection. This operation was successful in stopping the horizontal fire spread to the occupied exposure.

Gustafson requested mutual aid at 3:39. The Boulevard Volunteer Fire Department responded with Engine 6, a 1,500-gpm pumper, and 11 firefighters. The Race Track Volunteer Fire Department responded with Engine 77, a 1,500-gpm pumper, and Squad 77, a mini-attack pumper with 12 firefighters. Boulevard Engine 6 laid a 400-foot, five-inch supply line from a hydrant at Wyoming and Third streets and pumped to Ladder 1. This engine also supplied handlines on side B. Race Track units were assigned to assist with the trench-cut operations.

At 3:44 A.M., Fire Chief Jeff Miller arrived on scene and took command of operations. Miller placed the Home Atherton and Big Butte volunteer fire departments on standby at their stations for coverage. Callbacks of career firefighters were also initiated.

Miller requested an additional aerial from the Anaconda Fire Department, 26 miles west of Butte, at 5:30 A.M. Ladder 4, a 75-foot aerial ladder with a 1,500-gpm pump, responded with two firefighters. It took approximately 45 minutes for this apparatus to arrive on the fireground. Upon arrival, Anaconda Ladder 4 was positioned at the A/D corner and set up for master stream operations. Race Track Engine 77 laid 800 feet of five-inch supply line from a hydrant at Platinum and Utah streets to Anaconda Ladder 4. This engine was then placed inline and relay pumped to Anaconda Ladder 4.

At 7:30 A.M., Home Atherton was requested to respond to the scene. Engine 2, a 1,250-gpm pumper, responded with nine firefighters. This engine laid a 300-foot, five-inch supply line from a hydrant at Iron and Arizona streets to the A/B corner of the building and placed its 1,000-gpm deck gun into operation. The Centerville Volunteer Fire Department was placed on standby when Home Atherton responded to the scene. Miller declared the fire under control at 1:30 P.M. Mutual aid units were released at 2:33 P.M.

Forty-three career and volunteer firefighters operated two aerial apparatus and five engines at the scene. Firefighters operated three aerial master streams; five portable master stream devices; two deck guns and numerous handlines to control the fire. Six hydrants on the municipal water system supplied 3.8 million gallons of water to extinguish the fire. The last Butte-Silver Bow equipment left the scene at 1:55 P.M. on June 15.

Two Other Fires

While firefighters were working to control the warehouse fire, two other fires occurred. At 6:51 A.M., a structure fire was reported in at 725 South Arizona St., several blocks northeast of the warehouse fire. Butte-Silver Bow recall firefighters responded with Engine 2 and Rescue 1 along with Race Track firefighters. Fire was found in the entryway of a house with extension to the attic. The structure was being used for storage. The fire was quickly extinguished with minimal damage to the house.

At 8:55 A.M., firefighters were dispatched to a structure fire at 135 Park St. Callback firefighters again responded with Engine 2 and Rescue 1 along with Big Butte firefighters. Two large bay doors had been set on fire from the exterior. A nearby business owner had extinguished the fire just as firefighters arrived on scene. Both of the fires were investigated and determined to be arson. Later in the day, it was discovered that a third fire had been set in the entryway of a mining supply company. This fire had burned itself out and was not reported to the fire department. This fire was also determined to be arson. All three fires occurred within four blocks of the warehouse fire. Officials conducting a joint fire department/law enforcement criminal investigation said they believe these fires were not related to the warehouse fire, but were caused by a copycat.

Fire Investigation

A two-day investigation of the warehouse fire was conducted by Butte-Silver Bow Fire Department Fire Marshal John Lasky, Montana Fire Marshal's Bureau Fire Marshal Allen Lorenz and Deputy Fire Marshal Pat Clinch, and Special Agent Brian McNamee of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). A large crane was used to remove the walls that remained standing in order to provide safe access for fire investigators. It appears that the fire originated on the first floor toward the center of the warehouse. The fire rapidly extended up the open elevator shaft to the second and third floors. The cause of the fire is undetermined. The fire destroyed more than 20,000 tires that were stored in the warehouse. Damage was estimated at $500,000 to the building and $1.25 million to the contents.

JAY K. BRADISH/IFPA, a Firehouse® news editor, is a former captain in the Bradford Township, PA, Fire Department. He has been a volunteer firefighter and fire photographer for more than 25 years.