But things could have been much worse, according to Big Horn County Sheriff Ken Blackburn.
“They actually had (the fire) controlled at one point in the north side of the building, but the wind shifted and came out of the north, about 20 mph, blowing straight south, and blew it over the firemen, and they barely escaped,” Blackburn said.
Several explosions occurred shortly after firefighters evacuated the building, fueled by “a lot of gasses and various other types of things,” he said. But no firefighters were injured.
Blackburn said the fire started on the north side of the building, located on the west end of Byron’s main street, at around 4 p.m. Nepeco is an oilfield service and heavy construction company.
Allan Clark of Byron said firefighters told him the flames got up in the building’s false ceiling. When the wind came up, “they just went screaming across, and (the firemen) had to get out,” he said. “Then things started blowing up.”
It took about three hours to get the fire under control, Blackburn said.
Firefighters still were at the scene on Monday morning. Power to the area was cut off for a while, he said.
“At one point, flames were threatening these pole structures,” he said.
Law enforcement officers from Byron, Lovell, the Big Horn County Sheriff’s Office and the Wyoming Highway Patrol also responded Sunday, closing the town’s main street, U.S. Highway 14-A. Police and sheriff’s officers controlled traffic in town, while the Wyoming Highway Patrol troopers diverted traffic on 14-A to other highways.
Blackburn said Search and Rescue volunteers notified residents in the parts of town where the smoke plume blew over about what was happening and advised people with respiratory problems to leave the area until conditions improved.
“Community officials in Byron opened up the community center at the old high school, and people that didn’t have a place to go were able to go there,” he said.
Lovell Fire Chief Jim Minchow, of Big Horn County Fire Protection District No. 1, said 20 firefighters were battling the blaze at one point.
Minchow said he left the scene just before 11 p.m. Sunday, but one truck with three firemen remained all night to put out hot spots.
The cause of the fire had not been determined as of Monday afternoon.
Minchow said he and an investigator from the State Fire Marshal’s Office from Riverton began investigating the fire Monday morning.
“We know where it started, but we haven’t determined a cause yet,” he said. “We have ruled electrical out, but we’re still checking on some stuff.”
Clark said he feared the fire might spell the end of the Nepeco business, which is owned by Chad Petrich.
“His dad started that in the ’50s,” he said.
Byron Mayor Pam Hopkinson said Nepeco was launched by Ed Neville and Bud Petrich, who combined the first letters of their names to form the company’s name. Neville later sold his shares to Petrich.
“They started there in the community, and they hired there in the community,” Hopkinson said in a telephone interview Monday. “Nepeco did a lot of behind-the-scenes donating to causes. ... If there was a need in the community, in the town, that we needed to have help with, they were very willing to give.”
She said Chad Petrich also serves on the Lovell fire district board.
Hopkinson said the loss of the Nepeco building would have many consequences for the town, including loss of tax revenue, but it was too soon to quantify that loss.
“It’s a sad day for the town,” she said. But, “compared to what could happen — people could lose their lives — you just don’t think about numbers.”
Later, Hopkinson said the situation looked brighter than originally feared.
“It sounds like the gravel operation is still functioning, and Nepeco owns three wells that it will continue to service. Their field operations will continue, and the crane service will continue.
“It’s not as bad as it sounded. It might take a while to get their office up and running, but it sounds like their operations will be able to continue.”