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The History of the Kalispell Fire Department

Shortly after the vigorous building era following the settlement of the pioneer railroad town, Kalispell had its first major fire.  The year was 1891.  Pistol shots rang out, alarming citizens of the blaze.  The fire started in a saloon, and quickly spread to adjacent buildings on what is now 1st Avenue West between Railroad Street and and 1st Street West.  In spite of the efforts of the all-hands bucket brigade, the conflagration raged out of control, destroying an entire city block.

The Board of Trade called a town meeting on May 17, 1892, presided over by one J.H. Edwards.  It is here in history when the Kalispell Fire Department was established.  The volunteer organization was founded with A.F. Sparling as Chief and J.W. Kneiff as Assistant Chief.  Sam Hilburn became the foreman of the hook and ladder brigade, and W.M. McDonald the foreman of the hose company.  A constitution and bylaws were adopted.  Proceeds from the first Fireman’s Ball, held on July 4, 1892, paid for the first uniforms which consisted of a blue flannel shirt with matching felt cap, and black pants held up with a white canvas belt.  The two hose carts and the hook and ladder company were housed at City Hall in the Frohlicher Building.  In February 1893, the Board of Alderman passed a resolution that firemen would be paid $0.50 per hour while on duty.


As was the case in the early days of Montana, the first several fires in Kalispell resulted in life and property loss.  E.H. Townsend, a witness in an important criminal case, perished in what was thought to be an arson fire.  The date was March 1, 1893.  Three days later a small child, left alone, is thought to have knocked over an oil lamp, burning down a small shack in what is now the parking lot west of Glacier Bank.  On February 27, 1894, the two story Grand Central Hotel on the corner of Main Street and Second Street East caught fire and was destroyed.


In 1903 the town council purchased a “chemical truck”.  Don and King, two large bay geldings, teamed up to pull the truck.  in 1914, the department “motorized” with the purchase of a pumper truck, another chemical truck,  and a hose truck.  The $15,000 paid for these apparatus resulted in a $10,000 reduction in fire insurance rates.  In 1925, a 1000 GPM American LaFrance pumper was purchased,  It was the largest machine of its kind in Montana.  354 fire hydrants were also put into service which contributed to the fire department’s effectiveness.


The 1930s saw several large fires, including the Kalispell Lumber Company and the Bjorneby Flour Mill.  In 1932, the department began incorporating EMS as part of its work, providing ambulance service to Flathead County.  In 1935, the department moved from a combination department with four paid staff to a fully paid department.  In 1938, the firefighters joined the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF), and became IAFF Local 547.


On August 5, 1948, what was believed to be an arson fire swept through the Koppang building, injuring several firefighters and destroying several businesses.  Elrod School was lost to fire on January 4, 1950, in an early morning blaze.  On September 14, 1959, a fire started in the Woolworth Building, destroying the Conrad National Bank and Robbin and Robbin Clothing.


The 1970s saw a rash of arson fires, following a national trend.  On May 29, 1970, burglars broke into the Buttrey Food Store and used a forklift to make off with the safe.  It is believed a blaze at the Animal Center on 1st Avenue West and 4th Street around the time of this burglary was set as a diversion.  In July of 1972, the department responded to 17 suspected arson fires.  A suspected arson fire on August 5, 1972, destroyed Ewing’s Enterprise, Bomar Office Supply, and Western Development Co., causing $500,000 in damages.


Another fire of suspicious origin claimed the Buffalo Block on September 27, 1976, sending five people to the hospital.  The most expensive fire in Kalispell history, the fire destroyed Hillstead’s Department Store, and every business on the second floor including a dental lab, psychologist office, insurance office, business machine firm, attorney’s office, and medical offices.  Just 36 hours later, a fire erupted at the Kelly-Main furniture building.  These fires were followed in tiring succession at the Glacier Building, Village Pantry, JC Penney Co., Wheaton’s Cycle and Toy, the Blue and White Motel, Cornelius Hedges School, and the B&B Store.  Rewards were offered by the Chamber of Commerce for the arrest and conviction of persons responsible.  Governor Tom Judge declared downtown Kalispell a disaster area, and Mayor Norma Happ declared a State of Emergency, calling for a curfew of youths under the age of 18.  The Equity Grain Elevator fire of May 25, 1977, sent smoke billowing across the valley.  The following December Stewart’s Carpet, Norge, and Amfax were all destoyed in fires.


Arson befell Kalispell again in 1984 when Jack’s Tavern, Carmen’s Steakhouse, Fergusson’s Mode ‘O Day, and the M&M Business and Professional Building were all destroyed in the 200 block of Main Street.  The historic Fernwell Apartments burned to the ground in a ferocious fire on November 15, 1993.


Following a national trend in the fire service, and with key leadership from firefighters driving the effort, the Kalispell Fire Department began providing Paramedic Advanced Life Support services in 1994, significantly enhancing the department’s ability to care for the sick and injured.


On August 13, 2004, firefighters were met with a grueling shift.  Numerous EMS calls were followed by a plane crashing into a residential neighborhood, killing the pilot and passenger as well as a dog in the unoccupied home.  At around 2:00 am the following morning, an alarm sounded for a fire at the Skyline Bowling Alley.  Firefighters were met with heavy smoke and fire in the building.  An aggressive interior attack was attempted, but the fire was too advanced.  The building’s roof was constructed of the infamous “bowstring truss”, known to kill firefighters under fire conditions.  Shortly after firefighters evacuated the building, the roof system collapsed in catastrophic fashion.  Firefighters were able to protect the veterinary clinic next door and the animals as they battled the blaze into the next day.


In 2004, the fire department, in cooperation with the police department, began providing a Paramedic to the Kalispell Police SRT (SWAT).  The second fire station opened in 2006, and in 2007, the department became one of seven Montana Regional HAZ-MAT teams.  In 2008, the department augmented its abilites to respond to and provide rescue in confined spaces and technical rope rescue.


The Kalispell Fire Department has proudly served the citizens and community for 120 years, and will continue to serve into the future.  The members of the Kalispell Fire Department are grateful for the support of the city and the community as we continue to strive to provide the best service possible, and we are honored by the trust the community puts in us to be there to serve and protect.


Photos courtesy of Digital Broadway LLC