HELENA — National Fire Prevention Week happens every year in October to commemorate the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Chicago is not the only city shaped by fire, Helena too has experienced devastating fires.
Helena’s current downtown, and the fire department in operation today were all shaped by fire. In the early days of the city, fire danger was ever-present.
“Everybody built close together, and everything they built was with wood,” Helena City Commissioner and former Helena Fire Chief Sean Logan said.
Big fires first hit the city in 1869, then 1872, destroying buildings downtown.
Logan explained at the time, firefighting was not the same as it is today.
“The building that was on fire—they’d let it burn, and they’d tear everything down around that building,” Logan said. “That was primarily the response, and it wasn’t just a department that did that, it was the whole community that came together.”
While the fires of 1869 and 1872 were destructive, a fire in January 1874 was devastating.
“That one really changed the way Helena’s approached the fire problem,” Logan said.
The fire started near Cutler Street where a tan brick building now stands. Due to the city’s topography and wind, the fire quickly spread, burning everything up to broadway.
Logan said it didn’t just destroy homes and buildings, it also destroyed goods stored to get the city through winter.
“I can’t imagine how lonely that feeling must have been in the middle of winter, knowing nothing else is coming in,” Logan said.
After the fire of 1874, firefighting in the city changed. Companies were formed, and Helena’s built a station near where Miller’s Crossing is today. The fire tower was also constructed.
“They really started to get their act together,” Logan said.
The fire of 1874 was the city’s last major conflagration until 1928 when a fire swept through the current walking mall area.
That fire started in a cafe located where the Double Tree hotel now stands.
Logan said the fire was wind and storm driven, and it burned everything from the location of the current hotel up to the Power Block.
Throughout Helena’s history, fires pushed the city to change and develop. Safety measures like building codes and inspections were created, investments were made in new equipment, firefighters and prevention staff.
Despite new equipment, safety measures and a highly trained fire department, the threat of devastating fire still looms in Helena.
“We experienced it this summer with the fire on Mt. Helena,” Logan said. “We have a significant potential for a woodland fire to come to town.”
The Helena Fire Department has resources online to help homeowners protect their property and prevent history from repeating itself.
While Helena’s history was shaped by fire, steps can be taken to minimize the danger for the future.