Editor’s Note: This is the first part of a two-part series covering the Montesano Health and Rehabilitation Center fire of Sept. 14, 2022, and will primarily focus on the fire itself. The second part will focus on the patient transport and emergency management aspects of the incident.
Montesano Health and Rehabilitation Center stands empty. A chain-link fence blocks access to the parking in a half-hearted way. An American flag hangs limply from the mast, and tarps cover sections of the roof.
A year ago, it wasn’t so.
A fire that began in the roof area on the afternoon of Sept. 14 prompted the evacuation of the patients at the facility and had assets coming from hundreds of miles away to help.
The nature of the emergency was two-fold, said Chief Dave Golding of the Aberdeen Fire Department. There was the fire, an obviously destructive force in its own right. But there was the nature of the facility which compounded the complexity of the incident by orders of magnitude.
Nearly one hundred patients, many elderly, non-mobile, or requiring specialized medical care, had to be evacuated, transported, and rehomed.
“I realized you really you had two incidents going,” Golding said. “You had the fire and you had the evacuation of the residents.”
The resolution of the incident, rehoming the patients almost that night, all without injury from the fire, was a virtuoso performance from local and county emergency personnel.
“Initially it was tough. We’re a small department. We have a limited response capability,” said Sr. Capt. Jeff Smith of the Montesano Fire Department, among the first on scene and initial incident commander. “There was a lot of moving parts that had to be thrown together really quickly.”
“A stubborn fire”
The call log for the incident is couched in terse profession language, replete with emergency response shorthand.
“I think it first came out as a smoke and smoke alarm,” Smith said. “I was about a block out when the first arriving unit got on scene.”
The computer-aided dispatch notes show the fire alarm went off at 5:30 that afternoon, with multiple fire alarms going off. Sixty seconds later, it’s reclassified from a fire alarm to a structure fire. Montesano Police Chief Brett Vance, then also acting as fire chief for the Montesano Fire Department, said he was home when the call came in.
“I was public safety director,” Vance said in an interview. “One of my police guys called and said, Monte Health and Rehab is on fire.”
As Smith arrived, his firefighters began sussing out the nature of the blaze and making sure the residents of the facility were cleared out to the parking lot.
“I believe the first arriving unit started more of an investigative mode, trying to find out where the fire was located, helping to clear the building, making sure the residents in the immediate area were out,” Smith said. “The staff did a phenomenal job, getting the residents to their muster area in the parking lot.”
The fire was located in a section that roofers were working on applying torch down roofing, creating a waterproof seal over that section of roof, said Chief David Busz of the Montesano Fire Department.
“Initially I needed more people quickly. I think I automatically went second tone for manpower and shortly after requesting Aberdeen for an engine,” Smith said. “It was more trying to figure out if we had a running fire in a vaulted ceiling in an attic space, or if it was contained to that area.”
Golding, then interim chief at the Aberdeen Fire Department, caught the alert via text while at home.
“As the incident evolved, he realized he needed some assistance and he started to call for mutual aid from some other districts,” Golding said. “I auto deployed to the scene. My intent of going to the scene was to maybe touch bases with the incident commander and let them know, if you need more from us, we’ll get more resources if you need it.”
While the fire was smaller than he initially envisioned, Golding said, it made up for its lack of apocalyptic size with a stubborn tenacity as it burned in the roof spaces.
“If this thing really got going — I had this picture of a huge ball of flame,” Golding said. “It wasn’t, it was more contained.”
Traffic from concerned family members and the rapidly multiplying response vehicles soon created a traffic situation in the narrow backroads where the facility is located, Vance said.
“One of my first things to do on both sides was to assess what was going on. What do we need?” Vance said, talking about his arrival on-scene. “We had a major traffic jam with people trying to get into the parking lot.”
An escalating incident
Golding offered his assistance to Smith, eventually taking over as incident commander so that Smith could focus on firefighting operations while other personnel handled the medical side of the incident. The change of command allowed Smith to focus on the fire while Golding handled the behind-the-scenes aspects of managing the incident, Smith said.
“I went up to Captain Smith and asked if you want me to take over control of the fire as the incident commander. He took me up on it,” Golding said. “Right in about that time is where emergency management got involved.”
With Smith running the fire, firefighters were able to get up and halt the spread of the fire.
“We got up on the roof, vented it. Put a stop on that fire spread,” Smith said. “We were able to contain it to the kitchen and the parapet wall.”
The fire took a few hours to get locked down, Golding said, declaring it to be in overhaul at 8:15 p.m. Golding handed command back to Montesano Fire, which itself terminated command of the incident at 11:20 p.m., leaving an engine on fire watch.
“It was stubborn. It was a stubborn fire,” Golding said. “The fire itself, it was a labor intensive, hard-to-get fire. It was in the attic space. Lot of chasing it through the attic.”
Smith echoed that, saying it’s the largest fire in a few years, with the added aspect of all the displaced patients, which got it classified as a mass casualty incident.
“It’s the biggest one since the grandstand fire,” Smith said.
Firefighters from Montesano, Aberdeen, Hoquiam, Fire District 2, Fire District 5 and Fire District 10 all responded to the incident, Golding said. Twenty Montesano firefighters, career and volunteer, responded, Smith said — two thirds of the department’s entire strength.
“This incident was a perfect example of how one incident can overwhelm not just the host agency but the entire county,” Golding said. “We depleted quite a bit of resources from the central to east end of the county.”
The risk of a fire creating a similar incident is hardly unique to Montesano, Golding said. A complex enough engagement could rapidly deplete the entire capability of any single community in the county.
“If this happened in Aberdeen, the same thing would have happened to us,” Golding said. “This shows the value of our mutual aid agreements. It shows our ability to share our resources back and forth on this type of fire.”
Golding acknowledged the role luck played in the incident.
“It could have gone sideways in a multitude of ways. Luckily the fire was where it was at — in the attic instead of down in a living space,” Golding said. “There was some luck involved for sure.”
Part two will detail the work the emergency management team and other groups did to evacuate, transport and rehome the patients of the Montesano HRC.
Contact Senior Reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757-621-1197 or firstname.lastname@example.org.