Fire highlights needs for Williston’s volunteer department

Firefighters in Williston, N.D., were called before 2 a.m. Friday, Dec. 13, 2013, to a fire at an apartment complex that was under construction. Photo courtesy Roger Riveland

WILLISTON, N.D. – A huge fire that destroyed two apartment buildings here Friday highlighted the strain on fire department resources as the rapidly growing city adds more multi-story buildings.

Darwin Stevens, chief of volunteers for the Williston Fire Department, said the department needs more equipment, including at least one 100-foot ladder truck, as Williston adds more three- and four-story apartment buildings. The city has one 75-foot ladder truck.

“We need more equipment in general,” Stevens said.

On Friday, about 40 volunteer firefighters from the city and rural departments worked in the cold after they arrived before 2 a.m. to find one three-story building engulfed in flames.

Wind coming from the east caused the fire to travel along the rooftops and destroy a second building, but firefighters were able to prevent the fire from spreading to a third building also under construction.

“This is by far the biggest fire I’ve ever seen,” said Stevens, who has been with the fire department for 23 years.

The buildings, one with 41 units and the other with 42, were each valued at just under $5 million, according to the Williston Building Department.

The buildings, in the Harvest Hills subdivision in northwest Williston, are owned by KRE HH Venture of Denver and the builder is Bakken Contracting, the Building Department said.

The first building destroyed was the furthest along in construction and was expected to open in February, Stevens said.

The firefighters took turns warming up in vehicles as they fought the blaze, and some were sent home to warm up so they could return and continue monitoring the site overnight. No injuries were reported.

“They’re just froze to the bone,” said Stevens, after crews had been on site for 15 hours.

The cause of the fire was unknown Friday. The state fire marshal’s office is investigating.

Volunteer firefighters from the neighboring community of Ray manned Williston’s fire hall to respond to other calls.

Last week, a fire at Minot apartment complex destroyed two buildings that were under construction, causing an estimated $12 million in damage.

Stevens said he happened to be in Minot and that day and said the two fires were very similar.

Fire Chief Alan Hanson said buildings that are under construction or being remodeled are most vulnerable to fires, in part due to the lack of fire protection systems in place.

Williston Mayor Ward Koeser said city leaders recognize that they may need to go to a full-time fire department in a few years, but that would be very expensive and would require more state support.

“It’s going to be a challenge for us when the time comes,” he said.

Koeser said that when the fire department puts in a budget request, it receives high priority.

Hanson said Williston’s fire department would have received an additional $3 million in state funding this biennium if a funding bill to help Oil Patch cities and counties, sponsored by Rep. Bob Skarphol, R-Tioga, hadn’t been amended. Because Williston is now classified as a “hub city” under that bill, the fire department is not eligible to receive state energy impact grants, Hanson said.

“As the city expands, we need to expand,” Hanson said.

Holly and Tyler Bowles and their three young sons, who live in a new house about 100 feet away from one of the destroyed apartment buildings, were grateful to firefighters and police for preventing damage to their home and asking them to evacuate.

“It was really scary,” Holly said.

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