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Big Creek Forest Fire - Opening the bomb shelter

Wednesday August 2nd, 2006 - 11:00 AM
Bozeman Chronicle
The Bozeman Chronicle featured the fire devastation on page one

The Bozeman Chronicle featured the Big Creek forest fire on page one and above the fold. My friend Eric who accompanied me yesterday was a photographer for the Chronicle. I hoped that the story would continue the public conversation about forest fires and how they effect individuals and our community. I heard many comments, both positive and negative, in the weeks ahead. The public debate was ignited by the Big Creek fire and continued for many months afterwards.

 
Bomb Shelter
The house is devastated but the
bomb shelter door remains intact

On Wednesday, August 2nd the new Fire Incident Commander, Bob Fry, signed a pass that allowed me to travel alone to my old home. The day was bright and sunny. I felt great that I was going home again. Finally I could restore some order to my life by getting back to my old and comfortable routine, I thought. My house may be gone but the underpinnings of my life are still safe in the shelter. I could put on some comfortable clothes, pull out a familiar book and sit under the warm sun on a patio chair while eating my lunch. Then I would move the shop inventory and computers to a new location so Branford Bike could be up and running within a week. Life was a little chaotic now but that would change soon, I reasoned. The day was bright and I was full of hope as I climbed the mountain in my Jeep.

 
Melted Windows
Double pane shop windows melted and flowed in the inferno

Three full days after the massive forest fire roared through my yard the remains of Branford Bike and my house were still hot. A small, steady plume of dark grey smoke wafted from where the laundry room used to be. I discovered melted windows that exploded onto the front lawn. Solidified lumps and flows of molten aluminum were scattered throughout the wreckage that once was a home and business. Splatters of molten aluminum covered the concrete walkway and garden stone walls. Charcoal or burnt remnants of building timbers were virtually non-existent. Wood and anything else that could burn, succumbed to the fury of the fire. A thick layer of white, fluffy ash covered everything that was not be consumed by the flames.

Splattered molten aluminum
Aluminum eave flashing melted and splattered on my sidewalk
Rock Spalling
Molten aluminum splattered a rock wall
while the intense heat exfoliated the stones
 
Molten aluminum solidified
Flows of molten aluminum and partially melted glass

This was no ordinary fire I mused as I studied the splattered aluminum and melted windows. An normal wood fire inside a cast iron stove ideally burns at about 700 degrees Fahrenheit. Aluminum melts at around 1200 degrees and glass liquifies at 2200 degrees Fahrenheit. I looked at the garden stone wall that sat about 20 feet under where the aluminum clad eaves used to be. Lumps and flows of molten aluminum dripped on to the stones and spattered on to the adjoining sidewalk. The heat was so intense that it caused individual stones to exfoliate. Some were completely shattered. Once the thousand foot cloud of fire that I saw and ran from on Sunday afternoon, rolled down the hill and engulfed my house, the resulting inferno was like that inside a blast furnace or a nuclear explosion. It has been said that intense forest fires release the same energy as a medium-sized nuclear bomb - every 10 minutes. Shivers went down my spine as I fully realized how lucky I was to be alive after being chased by the Big Creek forest fire for almost two hours.

Stoves
The living room wood stove now sits in the basement
Vermont Castings Stove
A welcoming fire on a cold winter night in 2005
 
Melted Window Glass
Window glass softened and
shriveled in the intense heat

Ipulled on my respirator and dug through the rubble towards the bomb shelter door. A cast iron wood stove, that once was pleasant living room company on cold winter nights, fared badly. It feel through the burning first floor, had its doors and fireproof glass fused and cracked from the blast furnace heat, and was splattered with melted fiberglass insulation. It rested against the shop propane cast iron stove which was split and shattered by the ferocious fire. Soon I came to the remains of the first floor kitchen. Melted glassware fused with twisted silverware and broken shards of porcelain mugs to form grotesque sculptures. Expensive aluminum cooking pans were little more than molten flows amongst the ankle deep ashes and rubble. Rusting steel skeletons of a dishwasher, gas range and refrigerator rested on top of basement stored Brooks saddle rails and tangled burnt wires from NiteRider lights that time did not permit to be placed in the bomb shelter.

Burnt Kitchen Dishes
A few broken mugs and melted glassware
are all that is left from the kitchen cabinets
Kitchen in 2005
Tim's warm and cozy kitchen in 2006
before the Big Creek forest fire
 
Non-code concrete wall
The concrete foundation did not adhere
to commonly used building codes

Although the red hot coals of Monday were gone, intense heat radiated from the too hot to touch lower concrete walls and floor. I picked my way carefully towards the reinforced concrete bomb shelter which comprised the back one third of the basement and bike shop. Eric Newhouse, the builder, designed the shelter to protect Marian and David Watson, the home's original owners, from the initial ravages of a nuclear war. The thin reinforced concrete walls were softened and made rotten by the fire. With my house gone I noticed that they were only six inches thick as well. Most building codes require a minimum of eight inches for a house foundation. I did not trust the shelter to protect me but I thought it would save whatever I put in it from the ravages of a forest fire.

Burnt Washer and Dryer
An incinerated Maytag washer and dryer rest on the
bomb shelter ceiling next to a piece of steel roofing
Kitchen in 2005
The laundry room
before the forest fire
 
Shelter Door
The bomb shelter door is removed

At 1:30 in the afternoon on August 2nd I finally cleared a path to the bomb shelter door and watched two, paper thin sheets of steel crumple in front of me. For reasons unknown to me Eric Newhouse chose to use a lightly reinforced vinyl and sheet metal door on the bomb shelter. The vinyl melted and allowed the fire to enter the shelter. I was thankful that I did not trust my life to his amateur craftsmanship. Acrid smoke wafted through the entrance as I gently stepped inside the painfully hot, dark, cavern like shelter. Just three days ago I packed the four rooms in the shelter to the ceilings with personal belongings and shop inventory. I carefully placed the shop and my personal computers next to the Campagnolo spare parts cabinet on the floor of the most secure shelter room. Over the course of five frantic hours I stashed over 90% of the shop inventory and infrastructure in the shelter. Lastly I put my most treasured possessions; my bible, photos, cards and letters from family and friends, Thoreau's journals, my favorite clothes and Sunday shoes into the shelter. I left my home on Sunday only with a laptop computer, a Swiss Army knife, water, three days of clothes, energy bars and my most recent journal. I reasoned that I would be back to reclaim my life; I only needed enough supplies to last for a few days away.

 
Emptied Shelves
On the day of the fire most of the Branford Bike merchandise
was cleared from the shop and safely stowed in the bomb shelter
Empty Branford Bike
I worked feverishly for almost five hours on Sunday
emptying the shop and filling the basement bomb shelter
Branford Bike Bomb Shelter
One of four, packed to the ceiling
rooms, in the basement bomb shelter
Branford Bike Bomb Shelter
I pulled away the flimsy sheet metal
bomb shelter door and peered inside

AAs my eyes grew wide in response to the dim light inside the shelter they slowly encompassed the utter destruction. Four rooms were now one for all the separating walls were destroyed by the fire. The reinforced concrete ceiling was cracked and sagging precariously. A small fire flickered in the furthest corner of the shelter. The water heater and furnace were the only easily distinguishable objects. Eight feet of tightly packed merchandise and personal treasures was reduced to one foot of white ash and rubble. The bare concrete walls were scorched pure white by the intense heat. Only as the fire died down did it leave black soot on the lower portions of the walls. I kicked around in the ash and pulled two steel skeletons that were once computers from the rubble. After a few minutes the parching heat and sooty smoke forced me from the bomb shelter. A few days later, after the bomb shelter fire finally burned itself out, for no pumper truck ever arrived, I ventured back and shot the photo posted below.

 
Burnt out shelter
The cremated remains of Branford Bike inside the bomb shelter
A word from our $ponsor, Ads by Google
 
Branford Bike in Montana
My Emigrant store, Branford Bike,
in September 2005

2006 was the 31st year of business for Branford Bike. I, Tim Brockett, started it in the basement of my parent's home in Branford, Connecticut with just $10.00 in June 1976. Over the years as Branford Bike grew, it helped many employees and family members go through college, graduate or law school. The crew and I at Branford Bike served riders on every continent and helped them enjoy the unique pleasures that cycling offers. Many of the relationships we had with our customers not only spanned thousands of miles but also decades of time. The profits generated by Branford Bike improved the lives of our employees and family, helped hundreds of charities from the Salvation Army to the Park County High Cheerleaders and promoted the sport of cycling via race prizes and team sponsorships. So many lives were touched and made better because Branford Bike existed. My heart broke, and I softly wept when I saw the complete destruction of something that so many people devoted a part of their life to, and benefited from. Branford Bike, the business I and many other people knew and loved over three decades, was reduced to a foot high pile of ash and rubble.

 
Mom Brockett
Mom Brockett opening Christmas presents

My Mom lent me ten dollars to start Branford Bike in June 1976. She never charged me rent even as the shop grew and took over my parent's back yard. In the early 1980's my older brother Tom moved back to Branford from Chicago and joined the shop. He worked hard and with the money he earned put himself through college and law school while supporting a family of five. After my Dad passed away, profits from Branford Bike helped my Mom maintain and improve her home and yard. Recently Branford Bike earnings supported more family members, Susan and her three small children, while she went through a difficult custody battle.

 
Brockett Brothers
Four of the six Brockett brothers
Left to right; Billy, Ronnie, Tommy and Tim

My Mom is a strong believer in the power of education to transform an individuals life. For decades she was actively involved in the public school system via the local, state and federal PTA (Parent Teacher Association). I followed her beliefs by not only putting myself through college via Branford Bike but by trying to get all my employees to do the same. Some of my happiest moments at Branford Bike were when my employees matriculated from college and graduate schools. I am proud of all Branford Bike employees for their diligent work that made the business successful and brought benefits to so many people.

 

Susan and Bailey

Afew years ago my older brother Larry passed away from cancer at a young age. He left behind six children; all in their twenties. My Mom and brothers immediately gave support and assistance to Larry's grieving family. Branford Bike helped by setting up college savings accounts for the three oldest children who wanted to attend college, but did not have the means to. Later the shop provided financial assistance to Larry's daughter Susan and her three small children; Bailey, Hailey and Bryson.

Burned Computer
A charred computer rests next
to an antique time clock
Melted Campagnolo Brakes
A box of melted Campagnolo brakes sits on
the remains of the bomb shelter door
 
Melted Campagnolo Hubs
Campagnolo Hubs were melted and fused together

Isalvaged a few melted and fused bike parts from the scorched bomb shelter but that was all. Not a single piece of shop inventory or personal possession escaped unscathed; most items simply burned or vaporized. The fire burned unchecked for several days in the bomb shelter and destroyed everything. The next day I sifted through the remains of the garage and warehouse. The fire passed more quickly there and I thought that the damage might be less severe. On the next page I will show you photos of what I found.

T A Chainrings
All that was left of the 250+ chain rings I stashed in the bomb shelter
Campagnolo Burned Bottom Bracket
The best preserved Campagnolo Record bottom bracket I could find
Campagnolo Hubs
Campagnolo hubs from the devastated bomb shelter
Branford Bike Rubble
Tim's home and thriving business once stood here
 
William Pitt Home
William Pitt's trailer home burned to the ground

As bad as my situation was I felt sorrier for my neighbors. A young couple recently purchased the property across the street from me. Their home, which used to belong to William Pitt, was entirely consumed by the unsubdued forest fire. A little ways down Sagittarius Skyway the Buices lost their double wide home to the ferocious fire. Across the street from them, Everett Johnston, almost lost his brand new home. The blazing inferno tore into his garage while fire fighters, who had a pumper truck parked across from the end of his driveway, were forced to battle 100 foot flames with a 3/4 inch garden hose. The three car garage was quickly devoured by the ravenous inferno which then moved on to the wooden deck that surrounded Everett's home. The electricity failed and the garden hose went limp. The resourceful and courageous fire fighters used a saw to cut the burning deck away from the house. Finally a helicopter dumped water on the scorched and smoldering home. Everett lost part of his deck, a guest cabin, an outdoor hot tub, a three car garage, all the vehicles in it and all of the trees in his 35 acre yard.

 
Everett Johnston Home
Everett Johnston's home partially survived

Several weeks later the Emigrant Fire Chief and first Big Creek forest fire Incident Commander, Mike Graham, told me that he took pictures of Everett Johnston's garage as it burned. Mike said "I got a great shot of Old Glory while the firestorm raged behind it". In the same conversation Mike also stated that he took pictures of my house in flames from Sagittarius Skyway as it burned on Sunday afternoon. He explained that he took pictures of burning houses so the owners would be protected from charges of arson in case insurance companies asked questions. "Camera's are standard equipment for all firefighters" he confidently stated.

 
Isham Buice Home destroyed
Isham Buice's double wide trailer home was completely incinerated

In disbelief I asked Mike how he was able to take pictures of my burning home when I did not see any fire trucks nearby. Mike explained that he was alone and had spent the night at Marie and Jim Kelley's house at the end of Sagittarius Skyway. He drove his pickup truck to the top of the knoll on Sunday morning and watched the fire and took pictures. When the firestorm passed over the knoll he parked his truck next to the Kelley house and sought refuge there. A friend of mine who was watching the fire from a safe distance, with a high powered hunting scope confirmed Mike's account. After the fire passed by Mike took pictures and then quelled flames in the Kelley's yard with a garden hose. The nearest fire truck and assistance was at least one mile away. Then Mike followed the firestorm down Sagittarius Skyway, shooting photographs along the way which included my burning house. Finally, at about 3 PM, he ended up at Everett Johnston's house and snapped photos there before fighting the fire with another garden hose. In utter amazement I asked Mike why no one ever responded to my 911 call for help. He calmly and remorsefully stated that" 911 never passed that message to us. They really have to do a better job of letting us know...".

Six buildings including three homes burned to the ground on Sunday afternoon, July 31st, 2006. On Sunday night, Mike Graham was relieved of his position as Incident Commander. On Monday morning, Bob Fry the Park County Fire Chief, assumed the responsibilities of Incident Commander and took charge of the fire operation.

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