Powell assistant Fire Chief Mike Meeker, on call for the evening, said he realized right away that it was more serious than a pole fire.
A large, billowy plume of smoke snaked its way from east to west over Powell, looking like the white, smoky trail of a passing steam engine against the dark blue-black of the night. An orange glow at its base indicated a large fire was burning.
“When I hit the highway, I could see it was much more than a power pole on fire,” he said. “When they changed that to a pole barn structure fire, that got everyone moving.”
While the response would have been as quick with either scenario, “It definitely changes the mode we are in,” he added.
A second call summoned reserve volunteer firefighters to stand by in case they were needed, Meeker said.
The building was fully involved and starting to collapse by the time fire units arrived on the scene minutes later, he said.
Meeker said witnesses told him a short in the building’s wiring apparently caused the garage door to open by itself after the building was burning, providing plentiful oxygen to fuel the flames and accelerate the fire.
A city electric crew was on scene quickly, Meeker said, cutting power initially to both the church and the storage building.
That prompted concerns about damage to water lines in the church from freezing, and the city was able to figure out how to restore power to the church building only, he said.
While suppressing the flames, firefighters also had to battle communication problems and below-zero temperatures. Just as the fire call came in, a repeater on the Big Horn Mountains failed, making it difficult for dispatchers to hear radio communication from the firefighters.
“We could hear them, but they couldn’t hear us,” Meeker said.
A temporary solution was worked out later with the help of the city. That fix will work until permanent repairs can be made to the repeater — no small task in wintertime in the Big Horns, he said.
“They were going to take a snow machine and make an attempt today,” Meeker said Monday.
With the temperature at about 5 degrees below zero, “extreme cold like that creates its own issues,” he said. “We had to attack (the fire) from the front. It was just a sheet of ice, and four or five firemen went down pretty hard on the concrete. We ended up putting down some floor dry, and that helped some.
“If you’re not using a hose when it’s that cold, it will freeze off. And when firemen change their air packs, they’re froze up and hard to change.”
Ice built up on firefighters’ bunker suits as water sprayed on them, and the cold men sought warmth in the support truck where air bottles are refilled.
That truck was designed to provide respite from the heat in the summer and cold in the winter, Meeker said.
“We found out it doesn’t work as well as we would have hoped in that extreme cold,” he said. “We’re going to have to add some heaters or something. We will be dealing with that in the near future.”
Meeker said he and three officers on the scene found they had to keep putting on more clothes to stay warm.
Firefighters battled the blaze for about three hours, returning to the fire hall at about 11:45 p.m. They saw in the new year while folding hoses and readying trucks for the next fire call, Meeker said.
That was a significant change of plans for Meeker, who said he planned to go to bed early on New Year’s Eve.
Meeker said the storage building and its contents — a tractor used for snow removal, a bus and a van — were total losses, but firefighters were able to prevent the fire from spreading to or damaging the main church building.
Initial statements from police, who reported the fire, and from church members, indicate the fire started in the northeast corner of the building where a tractor used for snow removal was stored. Meeker guessed the fire might have started in the tractor, which had been used earlier in the day, but he said he had no official information about the cause of the fire.
Gary Mills, a member of the Glad Tidings congregation, said church leaders have contacted their insurance agent, Dave Blevins, and an adjuster will examine the burned building later this week.
“We don’t know specifically the origin of the fire,” Mills said. “That will be determined when the adjuster shows up.”
There is no damage estimate, he said.
“We are very grateful that Roy Eckerdt, the policeman on duty, just happened to see it and get it called in,” he said. “There’s probably only 30 feet between the garage and the main structure of the church, and there was no damage to the church.”
Mills said he also is grateful for a responsive fire department and firefighters’ efforts to keep the fire from spreading to the church building.
“Firefighters probably came away from family times to fight the fire,” he said.