Feb. 3, 2010
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.

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.

At this point, the explosion had leveled the buildings containing Boodles restaurant at 215 East Main St., the Rockin' R Bar, Montana Trails Gallery at 219 East Main St., the LilyLu children's clothing store at 223 East Main St. and an architectural firm above it. Fire was burning behind the Legion Club, threatening a two-story retail and apartment building to the east at 231 East Main St.

"Based on the damage and questionable integrity of the buildings, a defensive attack was called right away," Megaard said. "However, because of the time of day with people coming to work, we knew we may have people inside the collapse zone as well as inside the exposure buildings." Johnson was assigned to quickly survey and triage any patients on Main Street, and, despite the time of day, he found none.

Engine 1, a 1,250-gpm pumper, arrived on scene at 8:25 A.M. and was assigned to establish a water supply and begin defensive operations at Main Street and Rouse Avenue to the east of the explosion site. Stretching large-diameter hose fed to the hydrant at the corner, Acting Captain Steve Drab and his crew were assisted by city water department personnel who remained throughout the incident, ensuring an adequate water supply. One crew member from Engine 1, Firefighter Joel Fassbinder, was assigned to retrieve Ladder 1, a 100-foot, 1,250-gpm aerial housed at Station One, and set up its master stream in the alley to extinguish fire at the rear of the Legion building. When it became apparent that access to the alley was impossible, Ladder 1 was reassigned to side A of the exposure building at 231 East Main St. Engine 1 was reassigned to access the rear of the Legion building from a parking lot to the north of the structure off Mendenhall Street.

Engine 2, also a 1,250-gpm pumper, under the command of Acting Captain Graver Johnson, arrived one minute later and the crew connected to a hydrant at Main Street and Bozeman Avenue, stretching large-diameter hose to their engine at the mouth of the alley to the west on Bozeman Avenue, pulling a monitor to protect the Rocky Mountain Rug Gallery building at 201 East Main St. from encroaching fire.

Off-duty Bozeman Fire Department personnel responding to an all-call page began arriving on scene and forming crews from Station One. Captain Karl Rowe and crew were assigned to conduct primary searches of the exposure buildings to the east, while Captain Geoff Hoell's crew searched the Rocky Mountain Rug Gallery building to the west. While the stability of exposure buildings was potentially compromised from the blast, the floor joists from the Legion building were mortised into the Starky's Delicatessen building at 231 East Main St., causing a possible hazard to the apartments above. Emergency Manager Lonergan (Fire 4) arrived on scene at 8:29 A.M. and joined Megaard to assume check-in and radio communications with dispatch.

Eight miles to the west, Central Valley Fire District Chief Brett Waters had been listening to radio traffic from the scene and could see the smoke plume across the valley and wondered why mutual aid resources had not yet been paged. Reaching Megaard by cell phone, Waters informed him that although he had heard him request the first-alarm assignment, the page had not come. Assuming the 911 Communications Center was being inundated, Lonergan requested each mutual aid first-alarm company individually through dispatch.

Though delayed in the initial dispatch, mutual aid companies began arriving on scene. Central Valley Fire District Engine 106, a 1,500-gpm pumper, arrived first and was positioned on Main Street east of the blast site and hooked a hydrant at Main Street and Rouse Avenue. Its crew was assigned to pull a 1¾-inch pre-connected line and assist Rowe's crew in performing primary searches of the exposure buildings to the east. Waters arrived and joined Megaard and Lonergan in the command vehicle.

The first EMS unit on scene, AMR 1, received orders from command to check all buildings across Main Street to the south of the blast site for any potential patients. And though glass store windows had blown into several stores, no injured people were found.

Sourdough/Rae Fire Department Engines 7 and 7-1, both 1,250-gpm pumpers, arrived on scene next and were assigned to staging with crews placed on the fireground as rapid intervention teams for Bozeman and Central Valley firefighters during the exposure building primary searches. Fort Ellis Fire/Rescue Engine 1-2, a 1,000-gpm pumper, under the command of Captain Daren Nybo, was assigned to the entrance of the alley west of the scene, tapping a hydrant at Bozeman Avenue and Mendenhall Street. The crew stretched a 2½-inch pre-connect to a monitor and cooled areas around the burning two-inch gas main behind the Montana Trails Gallery at 219 East Main St.

At 8:42 A.M., Lonergan radioed for a second-alarm structure fire mutual aid assignment, which brought crews and apparatus from the Amsterdam, Bridger Canyon and Manhattan fire departments. In addition, a special request was made for Big Sky Fire Department Tower Ladder 12, a 2,000-gpm, 85-foot aerial, at least 45 minutes away with response potentially hampered by snowy roads.

By this time, a unified command had been established with law enforcement and public works to set up a 10-block perimeter around the incident, which was no easy task with onlookers, business owners wanting to check on their buildings and concerned family and friends looking for loved ones inundating the scene. Initial reports of missing persons stood at 12 to 15, with law enforcement officers taking over Bozeman Station One as their missing-persons clearinghouse working feverishly to track down the missing.

Northwestern Energy, the electric and gas utility for Bozeman, had initial crews on scene automatically paged on the first-alarm mutual aid assignment. The gas main feeding the buildings on the north side of Main Street ran from the alley behind them and utility crews began trying to locate shutoffs. The gas main had been installed in 1931 and operated at about 33 psi. A gas leak triggered by construction workers one block west of the explosion location the year before had revealed that few shutoffs existed in downtown Bozeman, forcing utility crews to install emergency valves during leaks.

Bozeman Fire Chief Jason Shrauger checked in with command. He was assigned as safety officer and he completed a 360-degree assessment of the scene. Safety issues included numerous power lines down; free-flowing, burning gas in two locations accessible from the alley; several masonry buildings adjacent to the scene that had bowed out or palled from the explosive force; and a zigzagged concussion pattern that had blown out windows and possibly threatened building integrity for a five-block radius west on Main Street as well as directly north on Mendenhall Street.

As mutual aid companies continued to arrive, Megaard set a goal of keeping the fire from going no farther than the Legion building to the east and the Rocky Mountain Rug Gallery to the west. To accomplish this, multiple handlines and monitors were put into use both on Main Street and in the rear alley, taking care not to put out the burning natural gas.

Bridger Canyon Fire Department Engine 8-1, Manhattan Fire Department Engine 2-3, Sourdough/Rae Rescue 6, Fort Ellis Fire Rescue 1-9, Central Valley Support 801 and Amsterdam Fire Department Engine 9-1 were assigned to staging while crews were used in rotation to both Main Street and North Sectors.

Shrauger by now was being pulled in multiple directions and based on the size of the incident, two safety officers were assigned — Big Sky Fire Chief Jason Revisky to Main Street and Bozeman Firefighter Matt Norby to North Sector — to track the multiple safety issues identified. In addition, with heavy snow now falling and temperatures below freezing, crews needed regular rotation to rehabilitation. The Salvation Army set up food and other rehab supplies at its headquarters two blocks from the scene. At Hawthorne Elementary School, three blocks north and east of the scene, students were evacuated to the Bozeman Public Library as a precaution from smoke drifting over the school building.

By 9 A.M., the balance of the second-alarm assignment was on scene, which included 10 engines, one ladder, three rescues, five ambulances, nine command staff and 58 law enforcement officers. Gallatin County's Fire Council has worked for many years to create a robust and dependable mutual aid system calling for pre-programmed heavy resources at the initial-dispatch stage. With this practiced cooperation and trust among departments, as well as a solid communications backbone, the county's mutual aid infrastructure allowed for adequate staffing throughout the event.

Rowe issued a primary all clear for the east exposure buildings at 9:20 A.M. and Hoell reported the same traffic for the west exposure at 9:30. Crews from Sourdough/Rae were assigned to conduct secondary searches of the exposure buildings to the east while a Bridger Canyon crew provided rapid intervention team assistance. The City of Bozeman Building Department, with assistance from volunteer structural engineers, began inspecting buildings within the 10-block perimeter for structural damage and tagging them for occupancy once the area was deemed safe.

The media and concerned residents were clamoring for information and at 9:40, Assistant City Manager Chuck Winn was designated as the public information officer (PIO). Winn, a former Bozeman fire chief, held the first of many news conferences at 10 o'clock and city staff began to post information on the city's website and cable TV channel.

"It's easy to get caught up in all that's going on," said Shrauger. "We have to remember the importance of calming fears and informing the public — basically setting up that PIO function early. And that also includes the families of firefighters, who had no information in the early stages either."

Big Sky Tower Ladder 12, arrived on scene at 10:08 A.M. and was assigned to Hoell at 10:17, being positioned just to the west on Main Street and supplied by a hydrant on South Bozeman Avenue. Fed by a large-diameter hose, its master stream was set up to extinguish active fire behind the Rockin' R Bar and Boodles restaurant buildings. Twenty-two off-duty Bozeman firefighters responded to the all-call and were rotated into the incident as well as helping to cover three city 911 calls in conjunction with the Central Valley and Sourdough/Rae fire departments.

Law enforcement had worked the list of potentially missing persons down from more than 10 to one. The manager of Montana Trails Gallery was last known to have been in the gallery building when the explosion occurred. She could not be traced to any other location, but because of conditions at the scene, her body was not recovered until March 8, three days after the initial blast.

While utility crews worked to locate gas shutoffs, it became apparent to the joint command staff that it could be many hours before the gas would be disconnected. The strategy continued to be protecting exposures, cooling hot spots and monitoring the gas until a shutoff could be found. As the incident wore on into the afternoon, Northwestern Energy located shutoffs to the east and west of the incident, but found another feeder line between the two valves that required them to install a second valve that night. An estimate was given to command that gas would be shut off about midnight — 16 hours after the blast — and that came to fruition.

Command reported the fire controlled at 12:30 A.M. on March 6. The city's water treatment plant increased production and even with seven hydrants being placed into operation, no loss of pressure occurred with 6,000 gpm being delivered for 24 hours straight. By the conclusion of the incident, more than 4.7 million gallons of water had deluged the scene.

A subsequent investigation pointed to the cause as a break in a threaded coupling from the gas service line into the Montana Trails Gallery, allowing gas to accumulate in the basement until an unknown source of ignition caused the explosion. To preserve the scene for fire, federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and insurance investigators, the 10-block security perimeter was maintained for one day following the blast while a smaller perimeter was manned for eight days and included members of local and state law enforcement assisted by the Montana National Guard.

Reflecting on the incident, Shrauger and Megaard acknowledged the hard work and cooperation among public safety jurisdictions as well as the extraordinary efforts of many community volunteers who wanted to help in any way possible. In addition, mutual aid crews from Central Valley, Fort Ellis and Sourdough/Rae stayed on scene for more than 24 hours.

"We know we always could do things differently after the fact and this was a tragic event because there was both loss of life coupled with extensive property damage," Megaard said. "We also had more than 100 personnel on scene with no injuries and we established a perimeter and stopped the fire where we planned."

Shrauger offered several key points learned during the incident:

  • Don't expect to outperform your normal operations on a big scenario
  • This was a team effort, including all public safety partners and neighbors (everyone that came and offered to help also went home)
  • Getting good information out regularly is the right thing to do
  • The way a department operates and trains day-to-day is the way it will operate during a large-scale event

BUCK TAYLOR is an assistant chief with Fort Ellis Fire/Rescue in Bozeman, MT.

Voice Your Opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Firehouse, create an account today!