When Steve Hanlin awoke Thursday to calls from people informing him his newly purchased warehouse at 809 Fourth Ave. N. had burned during the night, his first thought was, "Well, isn't that ironic."

Hanlin owns Servpro of Billings, a franchise that specializes in fire and water disaster restoration service.

He had purchased the building on Jan. 31 to accommodate his growing business.

"We needed more space, ironically, for fire-damaged contents."

The company had moved the majority of its equipment into the front half of the building on Tuesday from Servpro's current location 1375 Fourth Ave. N.

Several callers reported the fire at 12:57 a.m., said Battalion Chief Ed Regele.

When crews arrived, flames were coming through the roof of the building, Regele said, producing a “pretty significant fireball.” By about 2 a.m., the flames were out, but the building was seriously damaged.

The most intense damage occurred in the rear third of the building, which contained items owned by the former tenant, Paint All Inc. Materials included paints and solvents, said Fire Marshal Mike Spini.

"There was a lot of flammable liquid in there," Spini said.

The fire caused extensive structural damage that made the scene dangerous.

"We had unstable walls and ceilings in there," Spini said. "We had part of the gable end swaying in the wind."

Investigators were unable to enter the structure until about 2 p.m., when the threat was mitigated.

By late Thursday afternoon, the fire's cause still hadn't been determined.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

"We're still in there digging around," Spini said.

Servpro’s offices, located in the front of the building, were spared from the fire, but smoke damage was extensive, Hanlin said.

No one was in the building at the time of the fire, and no injuries were reported. Both Servpro and Paint All were insured.

Embers from the blaze flew more than 60 feet over the building of next-door neighbor Pacific Recycling, igniting a cardboard donation container.

"It just burnt in the bin," said Marshall Knick, manager at Pacific Recycling. The fire's heat caused paint to peel off the side of the bin.

The blaze also caused plastic skylights to melt inside Pacific Recycling.

"The tin on the roof has been exposed to some serious heat, so it's all wavy," Knick said. "It's probably shot."

The center will be closed until the business can assess damage, which may be early next week.

Pacific’s operations on Fourth Avenue North recently were scaled back to being a recycling collection point after their scrap metal processing operation moved to Pacific's location in Lockwood.

Pacific owners planned to only keep the location open if it still got frequent use.

"We'll see if this changes anything," Knick said.

As Hanlin looked past the gate and into the parking lot of his new warehouse, he saw water and frozen debris that had streamed toward the street until being frozen to the pavement.

He spit on the ground as he surveyed the property. "What a mess," he said.

Hanlin said he was disappointed, but remained upbeat.

His most expensive equipment was off-site at jobs when the fire occurred, and the old Servpro warehouse can still be used as a staging area while the building is restored.

"I probably handle it better than most people, because I see it every day," he said. "There's nothing you can't rebuild or replace."

Hanlin, a third-generation disaster recovery professional, said Servpro will remain open for business.

As Hanlin stood in front of his new warehouse, with only the walls of its back third still standing, his employees were working on recovery projects all around Billings as he began to plan his own recovery project.

"We are still in business and still are able to take on jobs," he said. "It's all uphill from here."



Chris Cioffi covers city news for The Billings Gazette in Montana.