At 3:19 on a cold Thursday morning 40 years ago, the Whitefish Fire Department received disturbing news that the high school was in flames.
In the five minutes between the calls and the first fire unit arriving on the scene, the cement block gym was totally on fire, with tongues of flame coming through the roof of the building. To save the gym was impossible, it was decided, so firefighters turned to minimizing damage and stopping the fire from spreading to classrooms, according to an article in the Pilot at the time.
The fire erupted on Feb. 10, 1977. At the end of it all, the arson-caused fire had destroyed the gymnasium, lunch room, art room, wood shop, janitor’s quarters, administration offices and boiler room. Band instruments, cross country skis used in physical education and other private equipment were also casualties of the fire. The fire cost an estimated $1 million in damage and new facilities cost $3 million.
Tim Bissell, now the high school’s daytime custodian, was in his senior year in 1977.
“It was a big blaze,” he recalled. “I only lived a couple blocks away and you could feel the heat when you walked out the door.”
The fire caused a hectic rush to reschedule events, relocate classes and return to normalcy as soon as possible. Students were bussed back and forth between the middle school, where some classes had been relocated, and those with multiple study halls were allowed off campus to free up space for students with classes.
Basketball games were played wherever an open gym could be found, usually at Columbia Falls High School, with Bulldog players wearing spare Flathead Valley Community College uniforms.
“It was pretty sad,” Bissell said. “It was basketball season my senior year and we were supposed to have a game that night. Obviously that didn’t happen at our school, but we did get uniforms from the old FVCC team and we did play a game that night at Kalispell.”
“We were devastated,” he added.
Classes resumed one week after the fire, after the school’s heating unit was tested and classrooms were sprayed with deodorizing spray. Teachers and students also volunteered to wash windows and wipe down classroom walls that had accumulated a layer of smoke grime since the fire.
Colleen Sullivan joined the high school staff as a physical education teacher in the fall of 1978, nearly a year and a half after the fire, but found that the fire still had lingering effects in the school.
“I came to teach PE in a school without a gymnasium,” she said, laughing. “The teachers were really flexible. The teachers just had to develop our programs and work around the spaces we had available.”
Sullivan recalled some workarounds that were still in place when she started, such as turning half the library into the high school office and waiving physical education requirements for graduating seniors.
Without a gym, Sullivan had to improvise how she planned her classes. She recalled taking students to the bowling alley downtown or going for runs outside. Sometimes, on a sunny day, she and her class would play their winter version of baseball, trudging through snow to first base after hitting a makeshift ball painted red so it could be found.
“We were ad libbing a little bit with some of the games,” she said.
Despite the disarray the fire caused, Colleen notes that when she started at WHS, the general mindset was one of optimism. The fire was in the past.
“They were getting ready to build, and everybody was excited about that,” she said. “We were moving forward.”
A $2.2 million bond issue was added to about $1.2 million of insurance money to finance the new gym and classrooms, offices and lunchroom.
The cutting of a ribbon in mid-September of 1980 signaled the end of a long wait for a new school and gym addition for Whitefish.
Two new classroom wings, the gym and foyer, cafeteria and remodeling to the existing building was complete. The addition boasted an 110-by-60 foot gym.
The fire was later found to be caused by Bruce Allen Frey, a student at the time. Frey was convicted of arson in 1984, serving 18 months in jail and 14 1/2 years of probation and being designated a persistent felony offender. He also had convictions for theft, drug dealing and is currently serving a 40-year sentence in Montana State Prison for sexual assault of minors.