By Joseph Boushee
Governor Brian Schweitzer assured local officials Monday that state agencies like the Montana National Guard stand ready to aid Miles City in the aftermath of Monday morning's devastating downtown fire.
The governor said additional help from the state was to arrive as soon as the fire was extinguished.
"As soon as the fire's out ... we'll have a rapid response team down here in Miles City — that will be the Department of Commerce, Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Labor — to answer any questions that people have relative to their business, relative to unemployment benefits and if there's some health insurance or (worker's comp) insurance questions, they can answer those questions as well."
The fire originated in the vacant Burlap & Lace store on the north side of the 700 block of Main Street. The exact cause is still unknown, but there was remodeling under way. The call came in about 8:47 a.m. Monday, and within a few short hours the wind-swept fire had destroyed nearly half a city block.
Businesses lost were Good Things, Imagine That, Copper Thimble, Family Floral, Horseshoe Bar (yet to open), DG Coins, Cellar Casino, Creme Beauty Salon, Farmers Insurance Group and a fitness studio.
Most of the businesses on the block were evacuated as a precaution, as well as nearby City Hall.
As of Tuesday morning, puffs of white smoke still rose out of the burned buildings downtown, as firefighters continued to shoot water on the affected area.
Schweitzer arrived by plane in Miles City on Monday afternoon, where he attended an incident briefing in the darkened Eagles Club basement, whose electricity had been precautionarily shut down as crews fought the blaze.
Schweitzer landed at Frank Wiley Field by way of Butte.
"I hate to come to Miles City under these circumstances," Schweitzer said Monday. "But, I will say that I was in Butte (Monday) morning. If you can, just say a small prayer for the families of those children that crashed in that plane."
A single-engine airplane carrying 14 passengers crashed in a Butte cemetery Sunday, killing all aboard.
Addressing business owners' and workers' questions of what might be available through the Small Business Administration or through unemployment benefits, the governor advised them to call 444-3111 and speak to Sheena.
"... It's gonna be a little while that your Main Street is going to be closed down while you clean things up," Schweitzer said. "Right now, we just want to help any way we can to get this dang fire out and protect as much of the downtown as possible.
"And the offer is still out there. If you need resources from the state — like the National Guard..."We'll help any way we can. We're ready to respond. We're all Miles Citians today."
By evening Monday, National Guardsmen were already in service, patroling the downtown area overnight. The Guardsmen were to remain on patrol until at least noon.
Miles City Fire and Rescue Chief Derrick Rodgers summed up the previous evening's work at the briefing.
"Last night was a pretty long, cold night. We were basically working on the Good Things building ... all night long," Rodgers said. "With the wind and the cold weather, we did have some conditions that weren't real favorable.”
"We're continuing to hit some of the hot spots in the rest of the buildings that are down, and they'll be flaring up, probably, for the next few days."
Rodgers said the John Stockhill Jewelers building and Foster Building — which houses Big Sky Pharmacy and several apartments — remained free of fire damage as of Tuesday morning.
An emergency shelter was set up overnight at First Baptist Church for displaced residents, but the shelter was closed Tuesday morning once it was no longer needed.
Rodgers said area fire departments offering mutual aid were released at 3 a.m. Tuesday.
"We thank all the departments for coming down and helping us out. They were a great help," he said.
Assistance was provided by the Custer County Fire Department, Custer County Rural Volunteer Fire Company and fire departments from Forsyth, Terry, Glendive and West Glendive.
Rodgers said firefighters with CCRVFC remained on scene to monitor the fire.
"We will be working with MDU this morning to restore power to the unaffected buildings that we feel are safe to go into at this point.”
He said owners can begin to inspect their businesses and ready them for reopening when the electricity comes back on.