Miles City Fire March 2009
March 24, 2009

From the Billings Gazette
By Lorna Thackeray and Tom Lutey

UPDATE 7:40 a.m.:
Miles City officials are gathering today at 8 a.m. for a briefing on the status of Monday’s Main Street fire. Firefighters brought the fire under control during the night, but at dawn it was still smoldering. Firefighters continued to pour water on the fire. More details will be known after the meeting.

Please check back for additional updates throughout the day.

MILES CITY - Fire that raged through a block of historic buildings on Miles City's Main Street on Monday destroyed at least nine businesses and damaged others.

The fire apparently started in a wall between Family Floral and Copper Thimble, Mayor Joe Whalen said. It climbed up the wall to the attic and spread from there to both of those businesses and a bar under construction in the same building.

The fire's cause has not been determined, and Whalen said he expected firefighters would be battling the blaze through the night.

Among the business casualties are the Cellar Casino; Family Floral; Copper Thimble, a fabric store; and Good Things, a novelty and housewares store. A beauty shop and insurance agency also were lost. A bar under construction was destroyed.

John Stockhill Jewelers and Big Sky Pharmacy were also in the line of fire. As much inventory as possible was removed from those two stores early in the day.

The business losses account for 40 to 50 jobs, Whalen said. The Montana Job Service will be part of the recovery.

"It's the beginning of the bigger process," Whalen said. "When the fire goes out, we're not done. We've got a huge recovery process in front of us."

No injuries were reported, but a person helping move gaming machines had chest pains and was taken to the hospital, Whalen said.

North winds of 30 mph with gusts up to 38 mph blew smoke and fire, adding to the difficulty of fighting the stubborn blaze in buildings that may have been around 100 years old. Flames spread easily through the nooks and crannies of a century of remodeling in the multistory buildings.

The fire spread quickly to the Cellar Casino on the block's east end, where the brick walls of the casino were beginning to curl outward like giant, two-story wood shavings.

When Miles City resident Jim Robinson arrived about 1:30 p.m., he could still see flames shooting from the casino, and the top half of the building was gone along with the business behind it. Bricks from the historic structures had collapsed into the street.

Stockman Bank, across the street from the fire, was able to move business to its operations center, Whalen said and smoke damage inside that building was minimal.

Townspeople gathered on the edge of the fire and crowded up to the yellow tape that law enforcement used to restrict access.

"It's wild," Robinson said. "It's big. They've been pouring water onto that thing since 9 this morning."

A block to the west, patrons of the Montana Bar leaned against a brass rail in the tavern's Main Street window drinking Budweiser and watching firefighters dump thousands of gallons of water on the fire.

"We heard a couple walls fall down," said Jason Gierke, who had been watching the disaster for several hours. "It sounded like thunder."

Several dozen people watched the scene from outside the Bison Bar, but the bone-chilling wind chased them back indoors.

Corina Berry co-owns Family Floral with her mother, Dorothy Mayberry. The family-owned business that has been on Main Street Miles City for 26 years was one of the first to go down in flames.

By 1 p.m. Family Floral's collapsed brick storefront was scattered across Main Street, where firefighters milled around in the thick, blue smoke. The crumbling void on the street's north side kept expanding like a mouth agape. Boiling flames 8 to 12 feet high danced where Berry's shop once stood.

"We got in about 10 minutes to 9 a.m., and (the flower shop) was already full of smoke," said Berry, her eyes red from smoke and tears. "We didn't go in. We didn't get anything out. We lost all of it."

Gov. Brian Schweitzer toured the fire scene about 2:15 p.m. and offered use of the National Guard, the mayor said, but Whalen said he hopes that won't be necessary. "I think we'll be OK if it stays confined to that one block," he said.

There were 10 National Guard members helping to keep the fire area secure, Whalen said. They were to be posted at five places around the perimeter. Every Miles City police officer was called in early, and there were no reserves. The soldiers help the city keep from having officers work overtime, he said.

Mutual-aid pacts allowed the city to summon help from neighboring communities. Trucks raced to Miles City from Glendive, 75 miles away; Baker, 81 miles away; Forsyth, 45 miles away; and Terry, 39 miles away. Whalen estimated that at least a dozen rigs were on the scene.

Most of those departments were staying overnight so firefighters could rotate and get rest and eat.

In addition to the commercial area, residences were in the smoke path. Most of the buildings in the area, including City Hall, were evacuated because of air quality issues. An American Red Cross shelter was set up in a local Baptist church.

Whalen was contemplating an evacuation order for areas downwind of the fire. That will depend on how the smoke dissipated overnight, he said.

Whalen said the fire was maxing out the city's water supply. The city has been without its 1.5 million water tank, which is being painted and can't be used. The city has been relying on a half-million-gallon tank, which wasn't able to meet the fire's demand for long without a surge of additional water from the city's water plant. Whalen said it was a touchy balancing act - increasing the amount of water flowing into to fire hydrants, but not blowing the plumbing in the older portions of the city water system.

The water treatment staff is working around the clock to ensure that water out of the Yellowstone River is cleaned and continues to flow into the city, Whalen said. He said people with water problems should call 406-232-3411.

Schweitzer said the state would deploy a rapid-response team to help the city any way possible. He also urged those affected to call the state response line for help with unemployment, worker compensation and small business services. The number is 406-444-3111.

Miles City has post-fire economic and emotional issues to cope with and Schweitzer's visit helped, Whalen said.

"Just the appearance of the governor can do so much to boost people's spirits," he said.

The City Council plans to meet this evening. If the smoke has cleared out of City Hall, the meeting will be there; otherwise it will likely be in a conference room at the BLM office, Whalen said.

"This city has a real strong will to survive," Whalen said. "There's nothing that offends Miles City more than seeing one of its historic buildings go up in smoke. ... We're going to hear from people."

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