Updated: Mar 9
PHILIPSBURG – Two passers bye and the Philipsburg Volunteer Fire Department (PVFD) were in the right place at the right time Saturday night.
The two parties responded to a fire at the old Granite County High School building just after 9 p.m., now privately owned by resident Joe Johnson. The fire consumed a machine shop with minimal damage to the 105-year-old main building just a few feet away.
One of the first people to see the fire was Philipsburg resident Travis Kelley. He and his girlfriend were watching television when they heard a large explosion just across the street.
“Someone called and asked if we needed to evacuate our house,” said Kelley. “I didn’t know exactly what was going on so we went outside to find that the fire was getting real big, real fast.”
According to Kelley, he and some other neighbors tried fighting the blaze with garden hoses but it found their efforts useless.
“The police were there but the firemen weren’t yet,” he continued. “We talked with the cop and we let him know that we thought Joe was still inside. By the time he (the officer) got around to the other side, it’s my understanding that another neighbor had flagged down a passerby and his friend…”
As the fire first began, phone calls rang out in Philipsburg as people checked on their family and friends. One of those calls went out to a pair of men who drove up to see if things were okay, when they realized that Johnson was still inside his home. After being flagged down by a resident, the duo raced to the glass double doors on the street - the original entrance to the school - only to find them chained shut. They broke through the glass and had to get passed a piano that was placed against a second set of interior doors before they could get to Johnson and help the wheelchair bound gentleman escape the danger.
One of the men was contacted but did not return calls or text messages.
Johnson, understandably upset, did not wish to comment.
Dine and Dash
When the Granite County Sheriff’s dispatch hit their cell phones around 9:14 p.m., members of the PVFD were in the midst of their 70th Annual Firemen’s Feed at the station. After having served several hundred guests delectable versions of elk, pork and spaghetti, the dessert course found them racing to their trucks in response. The fortunate happenstance of their location allowed the fire crew to arrive at Johnson’s home within minutes of the fire starting.
The response time proved critical as the structure was in full blaze when the firefighters arrived. PVFD Chief David Ray said that his crew came in full force for the incident.
“We had everything we have out there,” said Ray. “We had five trucks and Georgetown Lake had two trucks and a structure (truck) to reach it.” He also indicated that more than 20 first responders were on scene between firemen, law enforcement and emergency medical personnel.
When asked if the building was a total loss, Ray replied, “In our eyes it was a total save. The garage was lost, but the big house and the structure right next to it were totally saved.”
According to Ray, the fire appears to have started with an oil heater that was in the machine shop. When it ignited, it immediately set the old wooden structure ablaze and began heating other flammable and combustible elements. Within minutes propane and acetylene tanks exploded, as well as boxes of ammunition.
As the fire grew, it began licking at the old Granite County High School building that Johnson now calls home. At one point the southeastern portico, which residents stated was Johnson’s main entrance to the building, caught fire. The firemen quickly doused the flames to stop its advance. The heat from the fire broke several windows near the entrance, but the PVFD’s quick response stopped the fire from advancing any further on the historic structure.
Video Courtesy of Kassidy Huckfelt
What they don’t show you on the tour
Across the street from Johnson’s home sit a pair of vacation rentals. Lorrie Gates and her husband were staying in one of them when they were alerted to the sound of explosions outside.
“At first we thought it was a gun or fireworks,” said Gates of the disturbance. “But after we heard a couple more explosions we looked outside and saw the sparks and the building here in flames. We went outside across the street and there were more explosions and we could see that these two out buildings were in full blaze and the tree was on fire.
“The Philipsburg Volunteer Fire Department did a wonderful job of getting the fire under control and we were really impressed with that. … They were organized and just did a superb job.”
The Heat of Battle
The fire’s intensity was driven by what Ray described as various accelerants including fuel tanks, paint cans and ammunition boxes that had been stored in the shop. The flames were so intense that one neighboring house within 75 feet of the incident had its vinyl siding begin to blister and warp. Witnesses to the incident stated that the homeowner was using his own hose to water down the outside wall to keep it from combusting as well.
Cleanup and the aftermath
Sunday morning the volunteer firefighters were back at the scene, adding more water to the smoldering ruins to make sure that the danger was indeed over.
Chief Day related that when he and his crew returned to the station, something unexpected greeted them.
When the volunteer firemen had left on the call, the station was awash in dirty dishes, utensils and cooking gear with floors dirty from the night’s fundraising event. But when they rolled back in after 3 a.m. and parked their trucks, they found that the community members that had been their guests had stepped in to clean up the mess and leave the station spotless.