It was an old warehouse behind the Post Office located where Blach Distribution Company sits today. The weather was hot. Someone yelled that smoke was pouring from the building. A couple of men pulled open the big doors, rushed in, and began rescuing roofing, construction materials, and electrical equipment. A call was made to the fire department.
At the time, Elko had a volunteer fire department with four or five trained firefighters and many volunteers. A siren on a tower downtown called the volunteers with a series of wails. One long and two shorts indicated a section of town, two long and a short designated another area, and so on. A list of signals was published in Elko's phone books. This method of alarm also told all the people in Elko where a fire was located so they could also race to the scene. Today's electronic signals to the fire department stopped all that fun. Now, when a fire engine thunders by with horns and sirens blasting, we citizens look at one another wondering where the fire is burning unless, of course, we can see the smoke.
By the time the fire department arrived the building was totally involved. Chief Boyd Martin ordered the doors closed to cut off the air supply to the burning interior. Hoses were hauled from the trucks. One truck was too far from a fire plug. The driver frantically tried to shift into reverse to get closer but the truck wouldn't move. Zed Williams walked over to the vehicle and shut down the pump. The truck couldn't be put in gear when the pump was on.
Another fireman couldn't open one of the fire plugs. He didn't have the right wrench. Bill Nelson from the Slim Olsen Truck Stop loaned him one from his pickup.
The nearest hydrant to the warehouse was the end of the line and the pressure was way too low. Firemen hooked hoses to a plug near the Stockmen's and the pumpers were able to maintain a minimal flow of water to douse the flames.
Hundreds of Ekoans watched the action. They stared in awe as pilot Jim Weaver flew his borate bomber low over the burning warehouse, made a slow turn and lined up his flight path again. This time, when the World War II AT-7 broke through the thick black smoke, the pilot dropped half a load (300 gallons) of borate charged water on the fire.
What a sight! When the fire retardant hit, the warehouse roof collapsed. Volunteer fireman Selmer Waage was knocked to the ground when the big doors fell. He sustained a few scratches and a red coating. Another volunteer, Jim Shobar, was thrown to the street, injuring his back. Keith Odle, a visiting fireman from Sparks, Nevada was helping. He stepped on a nail that went almost through his foot. He forgot he didn't have on his heavy fire boots.
There were many red people around. The retardant not only collapsed the warehouse roof but colored some nearby buildings, hoses, fire equipment, and some of the bystanders.
Elko fireman worked until after midnight cleaning their trucks and equipment. Max Wignall, a longtime volunteer, commented that years later he was helping clean a fire vehicle and found some of the dried red borate still there.
Chief Martin commented that the half load of fire retardant didn't put out the fire.
Local BLM officials thought they were doing a good deed. The drop was ordered by fire coordinator Jerry Reynolds, who also volunteered BLM's range fire fighting crews if needed.
That evening, fire department crews were called back to the warehouse three times to wet down the smoldering building to prevent fires rekindling.
It had been one of the more entertaining fires in Elko's history.
Sources: Elko Daily Free Press, August 14, 1964; Dale Porter, Jerry Reynolds and Nick Halton, Elko residents; and Max Wignall, Elko, former volunteer fireman.
©Copyright 2006 by Howard Hickson