YEAR OF FLAMES, Part 2: Hectic year for fire crews

Business, home fires take a toll

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A helicopter drops water Aug. 5 on a fire on Mountain View Drive in Evergreen. The fire torched 10 buildings and 6.5 acres and required the efforts of 12 firefighting agencies and two helicopters to contain. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

While state and federal employees had their hands full this summer with 2015’s historic wildfire season, local fire departments in Flathead County stayed busy throughout the year as they scrambled to structure fires at dozens of homes and businesses.

Four tragic fires claimed five lives, including those of two children.

“It did seem to me that there were more [structure fires] this year,” Lincoln Chute, the Flathead County fire manager, said Wednesday. “I remember years we had one or two [fire-related deaths], but to have multiple this year, it seemed like there were more.”

Besides the fires with lives lost, there were a host of other major house fires that affected families.

One fire destroyed the home of a family of two parents and 11 children; another left a family of eight homeless.

Major businesses also suffered fire losses, with a pair of fires causing more than $1 million damage apiece.

The smokiest fires of the year in the valley occurred at the Flathead County Landfill and an auto salvage yard near Somers, both spewing massive columns of black smoke into the air.

And a single fire in Evergreen in early August burned 10 buildings and 6.5 acres of land and required the efforts of 12 firefighting agencies and two helicopters to bring under control.


Fatal fires

In one of the year’s first structure fires, Olney resident Norman Edward Weller died in a Jan. 11 blaze at his home. Authorities concluded that a wood stove caused the fire from which two dogs escaped to safety.

On July 18, firefighters with the Evergreen Fire Rescue found the body of Howard Poier after responding to a fire at his house.

Firefighters were able to contain the fire within about 30 minutes of arriving on the scene.

On Aug. 4, Brittany Kayleen Ince, 30, and her son, Gavin Thomas Henrichon, 3, were trapped in their basement as fire consumed their home on Trumbull Creek Road.

Officials knew early on that two occupants were unaccounted for. It took hours of excavating the debris before the bodies were recovered.

Eight-year-old Autumn Hawk died in a motor-home fire near Foy’s Lake on Oct. 1.

Her parents survived the fire, although they were transported to Kalispell Regional Medical Center to be treated for injuries. Their two other children were in school when the fire broke out.


Lost homes

January 2015 kept firefighters busy, as an electrical fire destroyed a home in the Smith Lake area Jan. 28, the second fire at the house in just over a month.

The home was fully engulfed by flames when firefighters arrived and was a complete loss. Owner Don Hamilton was home at the time, but was able to escape with his dog.

On Feb. 16, Dennis and Bea Beard of Coram awoke to their son yelling “Fire!”

Their family of eight was able to escape but lost all of their belongings. An older dog died in the fire that destroyed the home on U.S. 2.

Ryan Murray of Kalispell was likely saved by the quick response of students on their way to class at Flathead High School on April 21.

Tanner Archuleta and Jacob Javorsky, both 17, were waiting in the school’s parking lot when they noticed smoke rising one block away. When they realized a Kalispell house was on fire, Archuleta ran inside to alert Murray and other residents while Javorsky dialed 911.

Murray and the other occupants of the house escaped to safety despite flames reaching up the side of the structure.

Another student, Amanda Buxton, separately called the high school resource officer when she saw the fire.

Kalispell fire crews were able to save most of the house, and damage totaled an estimated $45,000.

The following month, a family lost its home of 15 years when welding equipment was the apparent cause of a fire at a house southwest of Columbia Falls.

Stan Ortel’s home was a total loss, and the May 14 fire was believed to have started in the garage. No one was injured.

A Martin City teen narrowly escaped a fire that destroyed the family home June 23.

Jacob Hagen, 15, was in bed around 11 a.m. when he heard a popping sound. He woke up to find his bed was on fire. He raced out of the house through the porch — fully engulfed in flames — but escaped with just minor injuries.

Fire officials believed the fire began in the garage, spreading to a tree and then to the house.

It was a total loss, but the owners — who had lived at the property for 23 years — had homeowners’ insurance.

On June 25, several residents in Kalispell’s Empire Estates subdivision were evacuated as firefighters scrambled to control an adjacent house fire on Roosevelt Drive and keep it from spreading to other houses.

One man was injured after running into the burning house to rescue his dog. He was treated for smoke inhalation at Kalispell Regional Medical Center.

Authorities believe a cigarette was the cause of a fire that torched 10 buildings and 6.5 acres in the middle of an Evergreen neighborhood Aug. 5.

Gusty winds carried the flames across a grass lot and into a neighboring property, resulting in the loss of the main home.

In total, seven outbuildings and three homes were lost.

It took a massive response from Flathead Valley fire departments to keep the flames from spreading to more homes. Evergreen Fire Chief Craig Williams said the response was a mix of wildland and structure fire suppression.

Twelve firefighting agencies and two helicopters responded to the blaze, which pushed embers high into the air and caused new starts as far as a mile away.

Looking back on the massive fire on Wednesday, Williams said it was one of the most difficult fires to which his department responded in 2015 — and was particularly unusual given the combination of wildland and structure fire tactics employed.

“That was a first,” he said. “We didn’t have anything else of that magnitude. I think that just speaks to the kind of conditions we responded to this summer, with how dry it was.”

A family of 13 in Columbia Falls was at church Oct. 30 when a fire engulfed their house and left them homeless and with few remaining possessions.

They returned from church to find their home aflame and the smoke was too thick for them to retrieve anything. The flames destroyed everything in the home.

“The whole family, praise God, survived, but they were not able to save anything,” Tanya Shestak, the parents’ sister-in-law, said in the immediate aftermath. “From top to bottom to A to Z, they need everything. They don’t have furniture, any place to live.”

The Shestaks had received more than $5,000 less than a day after GoFundMe account was created to raise money for the family.

By the end of the year, Alex Shestak said the family had received more than $20,000, but most of it had to go toward paying off a debt. He said his family had found temporary housing, with the parents and half of the children living in a camper, while the other half of the children were staying with relatives in a mobile home.


Businesses

Kalispell’s Majestic Valley Arena was the first major fire casualty of the new year. In the early morning hours of Jan. 3, a fire damaged offices near the entrance to the arena.

Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry announced later in the week that his office was investigating it as a suspected arson, but no suspects have been identified to date.

In perhaps the most expensive structure fire of the year, Columbia Falls-based Algae Aquaculture was struck by fire Jan. 27.

The fire that burned about 75 percent of the experimental alternative energy plant was spotted early in the morning by workers at neighboring F.H. Stoltze Land & Lumber Co.

By September, however, the company announced it had begun reconstruction of the facility, repeating the octagonal design while incorporating new design elements to make it more efficient. The new designs also include firewalls in the paneling that can withstand up to 2,000-degree heat for half an hour.

Kalispell’s 406 Bar and Grill had a quick comeback after an April 14 fire destroyed much of its roof — just a month after it opened.

Three days later, restaurant co-owner Lorraine Scotti-Belli announced that she was reopening the portion of the restaurant that wasn’t affected.

Damage to the roof totaled $50,000.

The A-1 Salvage yard near Somers erupted in flames April 17, throwing up thick, black plumes of smoke throughout the Lower Valley area.

It reportedly began with a controlled burn but raged out of control and spread to nearby vehicles in the junk yard.

Even before the start of this year’s wildfire season, a massive black plume of smoke was easily visible from throughout the Flathead Valley.

The source was a huge blaze roaring through a 900-ton appliance pile at the Flathead County Solid Waste facility on U.S. 93 on May 10.

The fire attracted hundreds of spectators, slowed traffic on the major north-south highway and took hours for at least seven different fire departments to put out the flames.

Authorities never made any arrests in connection with a fire that destroyed the main building and one outbuilding of Melby’s Home Interiors in Columbia Falls on Sept. 27.

Sheriff Curry said after the fire — which destroyed more than $1 million in merchandise — was being investigated as a possible arson.

With no electricity in the storage where the fire was believed to have started, authorities had ruled out faulty wiring.

Melby’s was back in business a few days after the fire.

Firefighters work to extinguish a billowing house fire June 25 on Rockefeller Drive in Kalispell. The intensity of the fire prompted the evacuation of residents of nearby houses in the Empire Estates subdivision. One adjacent home had its siding melted. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)

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