Fort Smith fire claims 3 lives, businesses

Of The Gazette Staff

FORT SMITH - A sense of loss and disbelief hung over this small fishing town Monday a day after a devastating fire killed three visiting anglers and destroyed a cluster of businesses that were a community hub and source for gas and groceries.

The cause of the fire early Sunday remained under investigation. Local and federal authorities said they haven't found any indication of criminal activity at the scene.

Victims from out of state

Two women and a man, all in their late 50s and from out of state, were staying at the hotel and died in the fire, according to Terry Bullis, Big Horn County coroner. Their names were not released Monday as authorities tried to contact their families.

Phil Palmer, one of the first firefighters on the scene after the fire broke out just before 2 a.m. Sunday, returned Monday to look over the mess of twisted metal, deep ash piles and charred remnants of the Bighorn Trout Shop, a nearby lodging complex and the Yellowtail Market.

Chad Fenner, who owns the market with his wife, Brenda, said Monday they were already drawing up plans to rebuild their store.

"The store, the trout shop, all that stuff can be rebuilt," said Fenner, who is a Bighorn County commissioner. "The people that lost their lives ... that's the worst."

Witnesses said the fire appeared to start in the single-story hotel next to the trout shop.

Jessica Woodard, of Bozeman, was staying in a separate part of the lodge and was awakened by the frantic crying of her Brittany spaniel, Wyatt Earp.

She looked outside and saw the eight rooms of the other wing of the lodge roiling with fire.

"The flames were literally shooting through the roof," Woodard said. "You could see the fires in the rooms."

The dog ran outside waking people with its barks. Woodard, her boyfriend and her mother and stepfather - J.J. and Steve Hilbers, who co-own the trout shop with Hale Harris - pounded on doors to get people out. Soon a 250-gallon propane tank next to the lodge was spouting fire from its top.

"That's when the entire building went up in flames," she said

Powerful flames

Palmer, a member of the Fort Smith Volunteer Fire Department, arrived minutes later and saw the building and a parked car engulfed in flames. He soon knew that there was no hope for those inside the burning hotel as the floor, roof and walls churned with huge, powerful flames. The emphasis shifted to trying to keep the fire from spreading to the other buildings.

That effort proved futile.

The fire moved quickly from the hotel to the trout shop, its kitchen and dining area and into the nearby Yellowtail Market. Firefighters cut off the supply to two large propane tanks and rolled them out of the way. Other, smaller containers under pressure popped and exploded.

Palmer remembers hearing an eerie whooshing sound as the roof of the market lifted and lowered, sucking in air and giving the fire ferocious new life.

Bystanders and a handful of local volunteer firefighters were later joined by crews from Bighorn County, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the National Park Service. Some applied foam to nearby gasoline pumps. Others sprayed water from trucks that had to be filled at the water tower across the street or an irrigation canal.

Although there were times when it looked to be under control, the intensely hot fire caught new life several times and, by dawn, had destroyed everything in the three buildings.

Woodward said she and her family felt sick as the fire tore through their shop and hotel.

"It was the worst feeling in the world to know we could only do so much," she said. "This is all my family has. They have nothing left. It's gone."

There was no damage estimate for the fire available on Monday, but the buildings were insured.

The FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Big Horn County Sheriff's Office are investigating.

"There's no evidence of criminal activity at this time," Cory Parker, Big Horn County detective, said Monday afternoon.

Officials with the FBI in Salt Lake City and ATF in St. Paul, Minn., said the fire was under investigation and there were still questions about the case on Monday.

"We're still trying to piece things together," said Jan Caldwell, an FBI spokeswoman.

The blaze not only killed three people but also demolished the only place in town to get groceries and gas. Residents of this town of 100 will now have to travel to Hardin to get those supplies.

"It's where everyone in Fort Smith goes," said Laura Schiltz, owner of Polly's Place, a restaurant whose wide bank of windows looks directly at the torched buildings across the highway.

Schiltz and others were trying to organize a small, impromptu store at Polly's Place offering milk, eggs and other essentials until something else can be built.

"This town needs them," she said of the businesses lost in the fire.

The Fenners bought the store in 2000.

"If someone's in Fort Smith, they say I'll meet you at the Yellowtail Market," Chad Fenner said.

The Fenners recognize the importance of the store and gas station to Fort Smith. Fenner hoped to talk with an architect about new plans for a store Monday night and, if everything goes well, have something back in place in three to four months.

The market was built in 1961 and has been a popular spot in this town that caters to anglers who flock to the Bighorn River for its legendary trout. Vice President Dick Cheney likes to fish the Bighorn River was believed to be visiting the area this week.
Published on Tuesday, August 08, 2006.
Last modified on 8/7/2006 at 11:59 pm

Copyright © The Billings Gazette, a division of Lee Enterprises.


Cause of Fort Smith fire ‘undetermined’

By MIKE STARK - The Billings Gazette - 08/30/06

BILLINGS (LEE) — The cause of the fire at Fort Smith that killed three people earlier this month has been officially classified as undetermined, federal officials said Tuesday.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which investigated the fire, said the blaze was so large and complete that it was impossible to determine where it began.

“Sometimes we’re unable to pinpoint a cause,” said Sherry Duval, a spokeswoman for the ATF in St. Paul, Minn.

But investigators found no sign of arson or other criminal activity at the scene, she said.

Meanwhile, the Big Horn County Coroner’s Office is still trying to complete identification of the remains of three Wisconsin anglers who died in the blaze.

The fire on Aug. 6 destroyed the Bighorn Trout shop, part of an adjacent lodge and the Yellowtail Market.

The fire, which started just before 2 a.m., swept through the lodge where the anglers were staying and reduced the cluster of buildings to ash, foundation and burned rubble.

The fire killed Ed Gohlke, 60, Linda Kopp, 58, and Susan Koeppe, 56. The three, who lived in Glendale, Wis., a suburb of Milwaukee, were regular visitors to Fort Smith to fish the Bighorn River.

The fire burned so hot, around 2,000 degrees, that investigators have had a difficult time matching the remains to the identities of the three people.

That means that death certificates have not been issued and remains have not been turned over to the families.

Terry Bullis, Big Horn County coroner, said Gohlke’s remains have been positively identified, but authorities still are trying to identify the two women.

With dental and other medical records ineffective because of the severity of the fire, investigators are now turning to the FBI’s laboratory in Quantico, Va., for DNA analysis.

“Unfortunately for the families, it puts them in a bad situation until we’re able to distinguish which loved one is theirs,” Bullis said.

The process of making positive identifications could take months, he said.