Flames Gut Historic Montana Building

Great Falls firefighters battled a three-alarm fire at the former Great Falls Brewery Building on 14th Street N.W. late into the evening Sunday and department officials said they expected to continue fighting the blaze through the night.

Training officer Doug Bennyhoff said that as of 9:30 p.m. crews had stopped the growth of the fire, sealing it off from the southern quarter of the building. However, at least a third of the building was considered a total loss, he said.

"The northern-most part of the structure has been consumed," he said, noting a western portion of the building was also destroyed.

Crews responded shortly before 6 p.m. to reports of smoke coming from the building, Chief Randy McCamley said.

Twelve firefighters responded initially and attempted to scout the fire from the interior but the combination of the maze-like layout of the building and a 20-minute supply of air forced them to turn back before seeing any flames, McCamley said. At least one crew member was able to detect what appeared to be fire activity by using a thermal imager.

"They've gone in as far as they can and run into some active fire activity," McCamley said about 7 p.m. "We're really not sure how much of this building is involved."

As crews attempted to locate the fire, smoke poured out of a window from the northwest corner of the building and then began to seep from a window in the center portion, about 35 feet from the northwest corner. A firefighter busted out several panes of a window to further vent the building. Another grabbed a chainsaw and went around the back of the building. A third took an ax off the truck and headed back into the brewery.

"I know we got something big in there, but I don't know what," Bennyhoff said. "It's going good."

Firefighters sprayed water into the brewery through windows, though no flames were visible. Crews walked in and out of the building, getting breaths of fresh air, new air tanks and some water before putting their masks back on and heading back inside.

In order to get a better handle on the situation, crews cut a vent hole in the roof of the northwest portion of the old brick brewery as firefighters aimed their hoses into several windows. Flames soon licked at the outside of the building through a window in a smaller section connecting the middle and northwest portions of the brewery.

Soon, 35- to 50-foot flames shot through the roof of the connecting section and then out the side of several windows in the northwest section. Smoke billowed from the building, obscuring the lights of a fire truck, and traveled into the city, pushed by the wind. About 7:20 p.m., the far outside wall on that section crumbled, even while crews attacked the fire with an aerial apparatus and several truck-mounted water nozzles.

The fire was first upgraded to a two-alarm fire, then a third alarm was sent out, calling all off-duty firefighters to the scene, Bennyhoff said. As of 8 p.m., about 27 personnel were on hand to battle the blaze.

The Great Falls Brewery opened in 1892 or 1893, according to Tribune records. The brewery, which made Great Falls Select, operated until 1968.

The age of the building combined with the fact that occupancy has changed frequently over the past several decades hindered the firefighting effort, McCamley said, adding the situation was "very dangerous" for firefighters.

Crews weren't sure where the building's firewall was, or if one existed, making it hard to pinpoint the size of the fire or predict its growth, he said. In addition, with the building having been used for everything from a brewery to storage to a metal fabrication shop ??? Montana Metal Fabrication is a current tenant ??? firefighters weren't sure what type of fuel they were dealing with.

"It's had a number of uses over the years," McCamley said.

"We don't know exactly what is burning in there," he said. "This thing could get ugly in a hurry."

Firefighters later determined that the fire was burning in mostly wooden construction, Bennyhoff said.

By 8 p.m., flames were shooting through the roof of three-quarters of the building and the fire was visible through windows and where walls had fallen. Firefighters used a defensive, or exterior, attack through much of the night because of the fire's intensity and its effects on the structure, Bennyhoff said.

The Great Falls Police Department responded to the brewery less than two hours before Great Falls Fire/Rescue were called, Sgt. Dean Bennett said. Police were called because of reports of juveniles in the building, but there was no indication that they were responsible for the fire.

"There were some kids in the area prior to the fire being set," Bennett said. "It's certainly a possibility."

"There's been kids in there all the time," said Marty Nelson, who lives kitty-corner from the old brewery.

An October 2002 fire inside the vacant brewery was believed to be arson.

Fire officials said no one was injured in Sunday's fire.

McCamley said that because of the nature and size of the fire, crews expected to be on scene into the morning hours.

"We're going to be here awhile," he said.

Republished with permission from The Great Falls Tribune