The full moon was nearly engulfed behind a thick column of smoke that raced into the frigid night air Monday. The flames, almost hidden by the smoke, towered above a workshop in Victor as 30 firefighters from the Victor, Corvallis and Pinesdale volunteer fire departments fought a losing battle in the brutally cold night.
The bitter temperatures alone made the battle formidable and resulted in a layer of ice that molded itself quickly to the turnout gear worn by the firefighters, adding to their hardship.
According to Victor Fire Chief Tom Dobberstein, his firefighters were working with up to an inch of ice on their gear.
All of the fire chiefs agreed the crushing cold temperatures combined with the water make fighting any fire difficult.
"Even the gloves on your hands were covered in ice, and it becomes a different situation," Corvallis Fire Chief Jim Knapp said.
While the cold limited mobility and raised some freeze-up concerns for the various fire departments involved in the separate fires, all of the chiefs agreed they were able to compensate.
"Once you start pumping water you don't quit or it freezes up," Dobberstein said.
Knapp found problems with his gauges freezing.
"The gauges were frozen and we didn't know what the water pressure was. You had to make sure you were flowing water," he said.
Since Saturday morning, fire departments around the Bitterroot Valley have responded to many calls. While it's difficult for investigators to determine the exact cause of most of the blazes, unusually cold temperatures are assumed to be a factor in many.
One of the largest fires occurred Monday afternoon.
The first call on came at 3:52 p.m. to the Stevensville Volunteer Fire Department. Within minutes the Stevensville crew was on scene to find a 30-by-30 foot barn engulfed.
The structure, an old dairy barn, was located about a mile south of Stevensville and was not in use. After the firefighters got the fire under control, according to Stevensville Fire Chief Bob Summers, the owner decided to let the barn burn.
Both Victor and Corvallis had responded to a mutual-aid call from the Stevensville volunteers. At the height of the fire, according to Summers, he had 38 people battling the blaze. The cause of the barn fire is still unknown.
As they were about to be released from that fire, a second call went out for the Victor Fire Department for a structure blaze off of Silverbow Lane south of Victor.
Corvallis and Pinesdale fire departments were requested for assistance.
On Tuesday, owner of the shop, Chuck Gondeiro, was still trying to piece together what happened.
"I went out about 5:30 and didn't see any smoke. About 15 minutes later my neighbors called saying they saw smoke coming from the north side of the shop. My wife called 911 and I went out to tried to fight the fire.
"I thought I had it out when I walked around front of the shop and the garage door suddenly opened about two feet and the fire took off," he said.
The fire department was on scene in less than 10 minutes.
"Victor fire got here fast, but it was already gone by then," Gondeiro said.
The heat was so intense that his recently completed home, about 50 feet away from the flames, sustained some minor heat damage, Gondeiro said.
The cause of the fire is still being investigated, however both the owner and the Victor fire chief think the on-demand water heater malfunctioned.
According to Gondeiro, his family had lived in the shop until October 2002 as they worked on their new home. The shop was fully insulted and housed a washer and dryer as well as other appliances.
After completion of their home, he had converted the building into a workshop. Gondeiro estimated it will cost around $50,000 to rebuild. The tools, including an acetylene torch, construction equipment, and a wide range of supplies and family items were a total loss. He figured to replace the items would cost nearly $30,000.
The fire departments were able to save a pickup truck from the burning building. Tuesday it sat about 20 feet away from the skeletal remains of the shop still covered in frozen foam and ice.
Despite the fiery destruction of his shop, Gondeiro had only praise for the fire departments, their people and numerous businesses.
According to Gondeiro, V-1 Propane had come out immediately after the fire and made sure their house had heat, Ravalli Electric also showed up soon after and restored power to the home. By early afternoon most services, including the phone, were back up and running.
Other fires since Saturday included a barn-turned-garage that was nearly destroyed. Tuesday morning Hamilton volunteer firefighters responded to a fire at a house on Big Corral Road that started when the owner attempted to thaw out frozen pipes.
Reporter Timothy Mitchell can be reached at 363-3300 or email@example.com