March 9, 2014 in City

Rural North Idaho, Montana bar fires spark questions

Bill Morlin Senior correspondent
 

Six bars in mostly remote towns in the Inland Northwest have been destroyed by fire in the past 10 months, but there’s no interstate fire reporting system in place that might help determine whether a pattern exists.

Four of the fires occurred in the Idaho Panhandle and two more burned just across the state line in northwestern Montana, causing thousands of dollars in damage but no loss of life or injuries.

Two of the bar fires in Idaho – one in Avery and another in Osburn – occurred the same day.

“Yeah, now that you point this out, it makes me wonder if something is going on here,” said one ranking fire official who asked not to be publicly identified. “I wonder, is there someone who has a thing against bars, maybe?”

The causes of five of the fires are listed as undetermined; the sixth fire, which destroyed a bar in downtown Sandpoint on Feb. 6, was determined to be accidental.

Private investigators, including retired arson investigators from major municipal fire departments, say the string of bar fires in the Inland Northwest may be nothing more than coincidence.

But even if it were something else, it would be hard to prove because of the lack of a formal interstate reporting system. What’s more, not all fires are reported to state fire marshals in Washington, Idaho and Montana. Generally, fires in those states are only investigated by fire marshals if there’s a loss of life or if their assistance is requested by local fire agencies.

“Unless it’s a state-owned facility, we can’t go anywhere or investigate anything unless we’re invited in by the local fire agency,” Idaho Fire Marshal Mark Larson said. “It’s not like TV.”

The prohibitions on the fire marshal’s authority were enacted into Idaho law in 1982.

Although there’s no obvious connection, the Idaho fire marshal and his counterpart in Montana weren’t aware of similar bar fires in their neighboring state. When given the list, they expressed interest but would say little else publicly.

The latest fire, on Feb. 12, destroyed the Golden Nugget, a Wild West-style saloon about a 17-mile drive southwest of Yaak, Mont., in a region where cellphones don’t work and anti-government sentiment is high among those living off the grid.

Public records show the Golden Nugget had state liquor and gambling licenses issued to Robbie Tackett, who operated the bar with her husband, Brian Tackett. He is a former grand dragon of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan who served 12 years in federal prison for burning down a Kentucky church whose pastor had criticized the KKK.

The Tacketts couldn’t be reached by phone and did not respond to interview requests through intermediaries. In 2009, Brian Tackett wrote a book, “Inside the Ku Klux Klan,” detailing why he committed arson for the Klan and how he had “wasted” 15 years of his life.

“I have taken a great risk in writing this book, as you can imagine,” Tackett wrote. “It is worth my life to tell you the truth, however. I have been able to live a quiet life since being released, a life without fear of attack from unknown enemies. This book will end that instantly.”

Montana State Fire Marshal Allen Lorenz confirmed his investigators are examining the Golden Nugget fire, which was covered by insurance, as well as a similar fire last July 31 that heavily damaged the American Legion bar in Paradise, Mont. That loss, also insured, came five years after another unsolved blaze destroyed the Pair-a-Dice bar, also in Paradise. People in Paradise reached by phone either refused to discuss the fires or expressed nervousness.

“We are involved in investigating those two bar fires in Paradise and the one that just occurred in the Yaak,” Lorenz said. “We know these fires are suspicious, and as long as they’re suspicious, we’ll keep investigating.”

Deputy fire marshals in Montana travel considerable distances in the large state and frequently have difficulty locating people they want to question, individuals who seem to disappear when investigators show up, Lorenz said.

Until he was contacted last week, the Montana fire marshal said he was unaware of four similar bar fires just across the state line in the Idaho Panhandle.

“As soon as we’re done talking here, I’m going to call the Idaho fire marshal and compare notes,” Lorenz said.

The latest fire in the Idaho Panhandle occurred Feb. 6 in Sandpoint at A&P’s Bar and Grill, located at 222 N. First St. The fire in the 112-year-old building was reported about 9 a.m. when a passerby spotted smoke coming from the closed pub. Tonya Davis, who had just leased the place, was painting and refurbishing the interior.

She apparently left a cigarette on a bar not far from paint thinner rags used to clean paint brushes and wipe down the interior, Sandpoint Fire Chief Robert Tyler said.

“We determined the cause was an accident: the improper disposal of smoking material,” the fire chief said.

The building, owned by Dale Pitts, was considered a total loss. It was insured for $192,000 and its contents for $95,000, the chief said.

Unlike the other bar fires where volunteer firefighters were miles away, seven career firefighters in Sandpoint and five volunteers, assisted by three other volunteer departments, were on the scene of the A&P’s fire within three minutes.

That quick response allowed investigators to determine the fire’s point-of-origin and see physical evidence that would have been consumed if the arrival of firefighters was delayed.

“It would have been a completely different outcome if this fire had been reported, say, after midnight,” the Sandpoint chief said.

Six days later, when the Golden Nugget went up in flames about 10:30 p.m. in Montana’s remote northwestern corner, volunteer firefighters from three jurisdictions drove for almost an hour on ice-covered roads to get to the scene. One young firefighter with special needs was driven to the fire in wintry darkness by his father.

“When we were about 2 miles out, we could see the sky lighting up,” Mike Sanders, chief of the Upper Yaak Fire Service, said recently.

“When we got there, I saw a building, probably 60-by-60 feet, totally engulfed in flames,” Sanders said. The volunteer firefighters had to deal with a potentially dangerous propane tank near the burning building and downed power lines.

With no immediate source of water, the Yaak volunteers only had 1,500 gallons of water on two rigs, no match for the raging fire. A water tender carrying 3,000 gallons blew two tires just a few miles from the scene.

The volunteers’ unsung, heroic efforts – tromping through a foot of snow in subfreezing temperatures – were in vain. “There was not much we could really do,” Sanders said. The fire so fully consumed the building that it was impossible to pinpoint the probable origin to begin examining a potential cause, the chief said.

Similarly, there was little left to investigate last year when fires destroyed three bars in a two-month span in North Idaho’s Shoshone County. Fire destroyed the Silver Dollar Bar in Mullan at 2:50 a.m. May 14, and twin fires on July 16 leveled the St. Joe Pub and Grill in Avery and the Longhorn Sports Bar, about 20 miles away in Osburn.

The Idaho fire marshal was called in only to investigate the Mullan fire, but by the time investigator Mark Aamodt arrived, the walls and burning debris of the bar and adjoining union hall had been pushed into a smoldering pile, making it impossible to determine the origin. The Silver Dollar, located at 210 Earle Street, was insured by owners Terry and Stacey Douglas, public records show.

The loss of the Avery bar also was covered by insurance, even though the community didn’t have fire protection. Without volunteer firefighters to respond, a half-dozen Forest Service crew members bivouacked nearby kept the flames from spreading to nearby woods.

Tommy Gray and his son recently had taken over operations of the bar, a landmark formerly known as the Trading Post, built on logs placed on the ground. Gray couldn’t be reached for comment, but he told the St. Maries Gazette Record a week after the fire that he hoped to rebuild.

The Osburn bar, which had been closed for several weeks, mysteriously burned 10 days before Shoshone County filed a tax deed against the property for nonpayment of $50,570 in property taxes. It was not insured. Shoshone County taxpayers were stuck with the $12,658 bill to clean up the charred ruins.

The Longhorn was owned by Michael Wayne Stevens, who authorities now confirm was under investigation at the time of the fire for distribution of methamphetamine. The 52-year-old Osburn resident, who lived in the building, was arrested in October on felony drug charges and has since pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing.

“The fire at the Longhorn was suspicious in nature,” Osburn police Chief Charles “Spike” Angle said. “The case is still open, under active investigation, and will remain so.”

Shoshone County Undersheriff Rod Plank said three bar fires in a two-month span in that county “certainly is a little curious.”

“We did assign it to an investigator, but there really wasn’t anything we could do,” Plank said. “We looked at the fires in Avery and Mullan and didn’t see any obvious signs the fires were set.”

In Eastern Washington, no bars have burned in the last few months, but arson was listed as the cause of a fire that destroyed a former state-licensed liquor store in George, Wash., on Jan. 22, 2013. There have been no arrests, but the investigation remains open, Grant County sheriff’s Deputy Jon Melvin said.

John Scrivner, whose Spokane Valley-based company investigates fires in Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Montana, said bars in rural areas frequently operate on tight profit margins and often are bankruptcy risks, especially for new owners. Still, many fires in bars and restaurants start innocently, caused by the oil and heat inherent in those operations.

“I’ve got to say with this string of bar fires, it’s probably just a coincidence,” Scrivner said. “I just don’t have any other evidentiary basis.”

Norm Loftin, a former arson investigator for Spokane Valley Fire, said he and a couple dozen other private investigators meet monthly for an informal exchange of information about fires. “We don’t have a shared database in these states,” Loftin said, “and I’ve got to remind you that criminals don’t pay attention to jurisdictional lines.

“But with these fires, I’m having a problem in seeing how they all might be linked together, other than a coincidence.”

Bill Morlin can be reached at bmorlin@gmail.com or at (509) 981-0096.


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