In Wake of Bozeman Explosion, New Scrutiny on Aging Buildings

By Beacon Staff

Following Bozeman’s colossal March 5 explosion – which leveled four buildings and killed one person – among the first things that occurred to Fire Chief Dan Diehl was the possibility of a similar accident occurring in Kalispell.

“I think everybody says, ‘Wow, that could happen here; the exact same thing could happen in downtown Kalispell,’” he said. “It makes us sit down and think about how we’re going to manage that type of situation.”

It’s an unpleasant, but necessary scenario to consider, Diehl said, given the numerous similarities between the downtowns of Bozeman and Kalispell: a dense, hodge-podge of structures built in the late 19th and early 20th century, many of which lack sprinklers or fire alarms, and don’t meet even the most basic standards of fire safety.

Compounding the difficulty of responding to a major structure fire or explosion in Kalispell and Whitefish is U.S Highway 93, and its nearly constant traffic of trucks carrying logs, combustible materials and other potentially hazardous freight.

“Here, what Bozeman doesn’t have, is a major highway running right through our Main Street,” Diehl said. “To close downtown Bozeman is one thing, but to close U.S. 93 and truck transportation – that’s big.”

The Bozeman explosion adds weight to a plan by Diehl and Assistant Chief and Fire Marshal DC Haas, which was already in the works, to beef up the Kalispell Fire Department’s inspection and prevention program. In a workshop this spring with the city council to adopt updated fire codes, Haas and Diehl plan to request that the fire department be granted the authority to issue citations to home and business owners who fail to mitigate fire hazards pointed out during inspections.

“The education side is one thing, but the enforcement side is very weak in Kalispell,” Haas said.

Kalispell’s ongoing budget squeeze has resulted in the elimination of two fire inspector positions, leaving the fire department without an active fire prevention program at present, Diehl said. To remedy this vulnerability, all firefighters have been training on fire prevention and will soon begin carrying out inspections.

“We’ve just got to get a handle on the inspection process and using the guys and gals on shift is a temporary solution,” Haas said. “It’s a fix to the problem.”

The focus of the inspections, at least initially, will be downtown.

“The downtown area is probably one of the largest fire hazards that we have just because of the age of construction,” Diehl said.

Walking through one of Kalispell’s older buildings on Main Street with the Beacon, Haas was able to quickly point to myriad potential fire hazards common to many downtown structures, including: exposed wiring, old fire extinguishers, flammable insulation, doors that open in the wrong direction potentially blocking evacuees and basement passageways connecting buildings through which a fire could spread.

The hazards in these old buildings contrast sharply with new structures, like the Hilton Garden Inn or Glacier High School, where the fire department paid weekly visits during their construction to ensure the projects were meeting code. That’s in addition to Kalispell’s five-person building inspection team, a division of the Planning Department, which is also ensuring new construction is up to code, and checking such fire hazards as gas connections to stoves.

But the older buildings aren’t subject to this scrutiny. Under the new inspection plan, the fire department’s three shifts would divide up downtown Kalispell into three sections: east of Main Street, west of Main Street and north of Idaho. Firefighters would then call business and homeowners and ask to set up appointments to do an inspection. Should the city council grant authority to issue citations, the firefighters could do so if someone fails to improve certain fire hazards within 30 days of an inspection.

Diehl stressed that firefighters would not take a punitive attitude toward the inspections, but would instead be working with owners to help make their property safer. These inspections would also allow firefighters to see the layout of the buildings, so if they had to enter them in an emergency situation, they would have an idea of a building’s layout.

“A lot of people get defensive when you start talking fire inspections, but it is to protect people and their lives and their business and their livelihood,” Diehl said. “We are very aware and conscious of the political ramifications of a building inspection program; the plan is to be reasonable and understanding and to work with business owners.”

It remains to be seen what kind of reception the Kalispell City Council will give to the idea of allowing firefighters to issue citations, but up in Whitefish, Fire Chief J. Thomas Kennelly said he is grappling with many of the same issues in terms of downtown’s older structures, and the idea of citations has been discussed by some city officials, though there’s nothing concrete in the works.

Unlike Kalispell, Whitefish has a full-time fire marshal whose responsibility is making sure codes are enforced, but Kennelly believes his department could and should be doing more, especially in the wake of the Bozeman explosion.

“We’re probably very similar at this point to Kalispell in having minimal staff to go aggressively out and keep a good vigil on the potential hazards for the community, but we do our best,” Kennelly said. “We just have to stay vigilant.”

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