Axmen is one of those stores where you can find just about everything. From wood-fired hot tubs to ranch feed to guns, the giant complex has been a one-stop shop for more than 40 years near the Wye west of Missoula, along with a sister store that specializes in ammo on U.S. Highway 93.
Lately, though, the store has been carving out a niche as a one-stop shop for all kinds of firefighting equipment, selling roughly $1.2 million worth of protective clothing, Pulaskis, hose attachments and lights this year alone.
Store managers couldn’t have predicted the huge and numerous fires in western Montana this year, but they’ve certainly had to work to keep up with demand. Their customers come from all over the country, including the Missoula Rural Fire District, the Seeley-Swan Search and Rescue team and the Navajo Hot Shots from New Mexico and Arizona.
Kory Koski, who manages Axmen’s firefighting equipment and small engine repair warehouse, said the store hasn’t been able to keep Nomex shirts and pants on the shelves. Those are the yellow and green flame-retardant certified apparel that firefighters use to protect themselves. They've probably sold about $40,000 worth of those this year, he estimated.
Koski also said their store is now one of the largest vendors of both wildland and structure firefighting equipment in the Pacific Northwest. Off the top of his head, he can recite facts about a litany of the more than 9,000 products the huge warehouse holds. He’s basically an encyclopedia of firefighting products, and for that reason, customers trust him to sell them the right equipment for dangerous conditions.
“I preach defensible space,” he said, referring to the buffer between buildings and combustible material that homeowners are supposed to create if they live in a fire-prone area. “I’ll get people in here telling me they are their own first responders, which is true, but before I sell them anything I give them a book to read and say, ‘Take this home and then come see me tomorrow.’ Because we’re talking life-or-death situations.”
One of the newest products the store sells is called FireIce, which is a powder that, when mixed with water, forms a fire-retardant gel that can be sprayed over the entire surface of the home with a special pump. It lasts 8-12 hours and is much more effective than water alone. In fact, Koski demonstrates the stuff by dipping his hand in then hitting it with the flame of a blue-hot blowtorch.
“It feels warm, but nothing like it would without it,” he says.
Allen Gilbert, Axmen’s marketing manager, said there’s a constant flow of customers to the firefighting equipment store on all days of the week. Sometimes it’s homeowners, other times it’s professional firefighters.
“That’s why we had to expand to this warehouse,” he said.
Gilbert said Koski’s expertise reassures firefighters. He knows, for example, which goggles won’t fog up in the field and therefore allow firefighters to see falling trees before they come down.
Brent Christopherson, the assistant chief of the Missoula Rural Fire District, said that having a brick-and-mortar store rather than relying on online vendors provides significant advantages.
“We certainly value their line of products and anything that they can help us with,” he said. “We’re certainly being tested right now with the amount of time we’re being utilized.”
In fact, last week Missoula Rural Fire District mechanic Brian LaForest had to go to Axmen to find a part to fix a generator on one of the firetrucks.
“There’s other vendors around, but local vendors have experience and you try to do business with them,” he said. “The more products that are reliable that a local vendor can provide that are close, the better it is for us.”
In the firefighting world, equipment failure is a risk to personal safety.
“When things go down, it’s kind of a priority to get it up and running,” he said. “You have products that are known for longevity. Certainly when you have a supplier of equipment that doesn’t break down, you go back to that supplier.”