On The Job: MONTANA

The small Montana city of Bozeman was rocked on a wintry Thursday morning, March 5, 2009, by a natural gas-fueled explosion and fire that left one woman dead and leveled or damaged seven buildings on the city's historic Main Street. Eight fire departments...


The small Montana city of Bozeman was rocked on a wintry Thursday morning, March 5, 2009, by a natural gas-fueled explosion and fire that left one woman dead and leveled or damaged seven buildings on the city's historic Main Street. Eight fire departments worked around the clock to contain what...


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The small Montana city of Bozeman was rocked on a wintry Thursday morning, March 5, 2009, by a natural gas-fueled explosion and fire that left one woman dead and leveled or damaged seven buildings on the city's historic Main Street. Eight fire departments worked around the clock to contain what became the largest fire since the city's incorporation in 1883.

Still boasting a thriving downtown despite changing retail and economic trends, Bozeman enjoys tourist traffic as a gateway to Yellowstone National Park as well as hosting fly-fishing aficionados and snow sports enthusiasts at Big Sky resort — all within an hour's drive. Main Street's buildings host multiple uses from galleries and shops aimed at tourists to bars and restaurants catering to students from Montana State University. Most buildings on the 200 block of East Main Street were constructed in the late 1800s with remodels and modifications added as uses changed through the years. Common construction in the co-joined buildings are Type V, non-rated masonry, one or two stories tall.

At 8:12 A.M., Bozeman Fire Marshal Greg Megaard was at his desk in Station One, less than two blocks from the scene. Hearing and experiencing a loud explosion, he was rocked in his chair so forcefully he thought a plane had hit the apparatus bays of the station. After checking the station, he looked out the window to the west to see scattered debris and an enormous smoke plume rising over downtown. Grabbing Training Officer Keith Johnson, Megaard (Fire 3) self-dispatched at 8:13 A.M. to the front of the Legion Club at 225 East Main St. He also instructed Fire Inspector Jack Coburn (Fire 7) to complete a size-up from the alley to the north of the explosion area.

"When I first had a look at what we had, it looked like 9/11 in New York on a smaller scale," Megaard said. "There was debris 80 feet in the air and cars blown away from the curb with several buildings just leveled."

Megaard gave a quick size-up and established Main Street Command at 8:21 A.M., asking for a first-alarm mutual aid assignment from neighboring county fire departments as well as all available law enforcement and American Medical Response (AMR) units, the county's EMS service provider, to respond. The three dispatchers in the city/county 911 Center were being inundated with emergency calls reporting the explosion as staff from local businesses were arriving in the downtown area for work. Some callers were falsely reporting the explosion as far as four blocks away at Bozeman's federal building, adding to the confusion.

The first-due company, Bozeman Engine 1, was on an EMS call at an assisted-living facility adjacent to the city's only hospital, Bozeman Deaconess, a mile away. By coincidence, the hospital's chief nursing officer, several emergency department staff, and firefighters and the county's emergency manager, Patrick Lonergan, were attending a monthly meeting at Bozeman Deaconess as word trickled in about the explosion. The hospital staff immediately began the first steps toward putting their multiple-patient incident (MPI) plan into place.

From the scene, Johnson radioed Bozeman Station Two to dispatch Engine 2 directly to Main Street as dispatchers were hampered trying to manage fire, EMS and law enforcement response as well as the many 911 callers. Giving his size-up from the north alley, Coburn (who spent 17 years with the Los Angeles Fire Department before relocating to Bozeman) checked in with Main Street Command, reporting the entire service alley behind the 200 block of East Main Street blocked with debris and power lines down. He saw heavy fire behind the Rockin' R Bar at 211 Main St. and said he could hear a gas main "whistling." He reported exposures to the east and west, but because of the width of the alleys he felt that exposures to the north were safe. Megaard assigned Coburn as North Sector.

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