“They are just numb,” was how Wanda Holt, manager of the Bunkhouse Inn, described the feelings of owners Matt and Lori Folkman after losing the historical inn in a fire on Oct. 10.
“Along with the shock and sadness, we so appreciate and are overwhelmed at the amazing support from everyone in Augusta and the surrounding communities,” Holt said. “You can’t find a better place, I’m so proud to live in Augusta.”
Interviewed Sunday afternoon, Holt said there were still embers burning and it would be a while before it will be safe to sift through the remains and determine whether anything survived. A bright spot, Holt said was saving the original “Bunkhouse” sign as the building was burning.
The fire, which started in the back of the lower level, was reported at 1:34 p.m. The fire engulfed the Inn on Augusta’s Main Street (U.S. Highway 287) Saturday afternoon but did not spread to any other structures with the heroic efforts of the fire fighters and community members.
Responding agencies included volunteer fire departments from Augusta, Choteau, Fairfield, Malmstrom Air Force Base and area Hutterite colonies.
Augusta Volunteer Fire Chief Jason Mosher was eating outside the Buckhorn Bar directly across from the Bunkhouse when the fire started. Interviewed on Monday morning, Mosher said girls playing in the area saw the flames at almost the same time the heat from the fire blew out a window. Mosher said he headed to the fire hall and the assistant chief (who had just come out of the Buckhorn) quickly headed to the hotel to make sure everyone was clear of the building.
Mosher said the one guest had just taken a shower before the start of the fire and was able to get out uninjured after hearing the window explode. The owners were not in the building when the fire started.
“It was a major team effort,” Mosher said. He estimated there were 20 firefighters from Augusta on scene and at least 20 from the other departments. “We couldn’t have done what we did that day without the help from the other fire departments, the Hutterites and the community. I’m really thankful the neighboring fire departments showed up; it was great to have the help,” Mosher said.
Mosher has worked with the Augusta Volunteer Fire Department for seven years and been the fire chief for a year and half. This was his first major fire and the first for Augusta in a long time. “We have had some brush and field fires, but this was a major undertaking,” he said.
Mosher estimated the crews used 200,000 gallons of water throughout the day. “We were able to keep a consistent flow of water with just a few small lapses, drawing from a 30,000 gallon tank, the creek and later the ditch that runs through town which was turned off, but was reopened to help fight the fire.
The Hutterite colony members brought in an elevated platform that allowed firefighters to spray from above, Mosher said. Pat Troy brought an excavator to bring down the building.
Mosher said the firefighters deemed the building a loss, and with the owners’ permission, elected to bring down what remained of the structure at about 8:30 p.m. over concerns of the roof collapsing and possibly sending the wall into the nearby Latigo and Lace building. “It was a tough call to make,” Mosher said. “At that point we were concerned for the Latigo and Lace building and others down the row.”
“There were just so many layers to the building from multiple layers on the roof and inside the building, places where the fire could hide undetected,” Mosher said. “To save the structure, we would need to fight the fire from inside.” Mosher said the heat was intense from the start, with flames shooting out windows from both sides, making entering the structure unsafe.
Mosher said one of his crew members suffered a slight abrasion to his eye. He reportedly had visited a doctor on Sunday and expected a full recovery in a few days.
The Augusta fire crew was on site until around 2 a.m. on Sunday. Mosher left a couple firefighters to watch for hot spots during the night until others returned at 6 a.m.
The state fire marshal was at the fire site on Sunday, according to Mosher. They did not determine a source of the fire, he said. The hottest part of the fire was in the lower rear section, which contained the living quarters and laundry area, Mosher said.
Both Mosher and Holt spoke of the community support. Everyone helped, including fellow business owners offering food and water, they said. “They brought the firemen water, food and later coffee,” said Mosher.
Many came together to remove the contents of the building to the right of the Bunkhouse, Latigo and Lace, owned by Jason and Christi Levine. The community formed a brigade of volunteers who emptied the building in case the fire would spread, Holt added.
Matt and Lori Folkman, who have owned Wagon West for just a year, purchased the Bunkhouse a month ago from Donna Hartelius of Great Falls. Hartelius purchased the inn in 2017. Prior to Hartelius purchasing the inn in 2017, Dylan and Amy Lennox owned it for five years and Terry and Jordan Taillon for many years before that.
According to Acantha Visitor’s Guide story, the two-story wooden structure (located at 124 Main St. in Augusta) was constructed in the now-defunct town of Gilman in 1912. Originally called the “Hotel Gilman,” the building was moved to Augusta around 1927. It has been called the Augusta Hotel and the Bunkhouse Hotel in its years of providing overnight lodging to travelers. Unusual patches in the floor made from coffee tins were legacies of the move, dating back from a floor patching job in 1927.
Holt said it was a dream for Matt and Lori to purchase the inn. The owners not only lost their business, but their personal items as well, since they resided at the inn.
News of the fire was shared on the Bunkhouse Facebook page. “We are saddened to report that our beloved inn caught fire yesterday and was completely destroyed. The Bunkhouse was a focal point of Augusta and had housed visitors continuously since 1912.
“We loved its creaky old wood floors, patched with scrap pieces of tin. We loved the spacious yet cozy lobby where friends were made and tales of grand Rocky Mountain adventures were told. We loved each of the nine guest rooms, furnished with antiques and squeaky metal bedframes. The charm and character of The Bunkhouse is lost for eternity.
“But what remains are your memories of visiting Augusta and staying at The Bunkhouse. Or maybe you are a local and once worked there, making beds and tending to guests. Perhaps you lived nearby and liked to drop in and visit with prior owners and guests.”
Those visiting the page were asked to please share memories from the Bunkhouse. “We would love to collect them so that The Bunkhouse can live on. Photos of your visit would be greatly treasured as well.”
Holt, the daughter of Butch and Mona VanDeRiet of Choteau who has been around the area for years, said Sunday there had been a steady stream of people stopping by Wagons West sharing stories. “It is bittersweet today, but so nice to hear the stories and think about a happy time,” she added.
The Augusta Area Chamber of Commerce posted to its Facebook page, “While we wish we had better news to share, our beloved Bunkhouse Inn is a total loss.” The chamber asked everyone to please keep Augusta in their hearts, thoughts and prayers. “We are all devastated and know that many of you have fond memories of this historic piece of our community,” the post reads.
The Chamber of Commerce shared the good news: no one was hurt and the fire did not spread to any other structures in town.
“An incredible thank you to our volunteer fire department (and local residents and neighbors) and the fire departments who came from Choteau, Fairfield and Malmstrom AFB to assist. Thank you to everyone who helped, from putting out the fire to hauling out goods from a neighboring business and donating food and drinks.”
“The next step is definitely the cleanup,” Holt said. “We have community members bringing out their tractors. We have a cleanup crew coming out. I don’t know what the next step is for Matt and Lori.”
Holt said there is nothing officially decided and it is early, but knowing Matt and Lori, they will want to rebuild.
A team fundraiser was started on gofundme.com over the weekend by Avery and Stephanie Folkman. The page states: “My family lost their hotel to a fire on October 10th. They lived downstairs in the apartment and had a lot of their belongings there. Not asking for much, but they lost a lot of clothes, laptops and other work-related things. My siblings lost their school supplies, skateboards and other belongings. Anything will help and we will be extremely grateful.”