Owners Dick Lewis and Cheryl Thompson with the welcome sign out Monday when they opened for business in the new store. The new store was built at the same site as the old one, shown below as it looked after an arson-caused fire on September 11 last year. G. Noland photos
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
June 25, 1998
Just over nine months ago, the NAPA Seeley Lake Auto Parts Store was destroyed by fire.
Monday of this week, the doors of a brand new NAPA store in the downtown district opened on the same site as the old store and it was business as usual.
The new store, with 4,800 square feet, is almost double the size of the old store, according to co-owner Cheryl Thompson, and features a high ceiling which will allow for future expansion with "double-decking" of shelves.
The NAPA store lost only five days of sales following the unsolved arson fire last fall, and reopened in a rented building one block off Highway 83. This past week, the owners were closed only three days and moved in record time with a fund-raising benefit for the Seeley Lake Lions Club and First Presbyterian Church.
by Gary Noland
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Five days after a deliberately set fire heavily damaged the NAPA Seeley Lake Auto Parts Store, the operation is back in business.
Co-owners Dick Lewis and Cheri Thompson watched helplessly early last Thursday morning as firefighters fought to contain a blaze that blackened the store fronting on Highway 83 in the downtown district.
They decided they'd be back in business "...around 5 a.m. that morning," Lewis said Saturday as he and NAPA employees from around the state worked feverishly to stock a rented building on Redwood Lane so the business could re-open.
"We opened Monday morning as planned," Thompson said Tuesday, "but we're a little rough around the edges."
The two owners talked Tuesday about how they hadn't given much thought to anything but getting back in business. "Not opening" was not a consideration.
"I'm not sure it ever entered my mind. It never occurred to us to not open," Thompson said.
"Fortunately, we had a building available," she said in referring to a Wilderness Excavating metal shop building owned by her NAPA partner, Lewis. Thursday, a group of volunteer business people helped clean out that building which housed Lewis's heavy equipment used in his excavating business, Friday crews were painting the interior, and Saturday a NAPA truck delivered new inventory to stock the shelves.
"We're trying to move forward in an orderly manner," Lewis said, expressing gratitude for the assistance from friends and the NAPA family.
"We had a fantastic day Monday," she added. Many people came in and bought something as an "act of support," she said. Some sent flowers. Others said "...they were happy to see us back in business."
Total damage to the NAPA store will take some time to assess, but estimates range from $100,000 to $300,000.
Some of the inventory might be salvageable, Thompson said, but most of it will have to be repackaged and that will mean a lot of time and labor expense.
Whatever the damage, it could have been a lot worse had it not been for quick response and appropriate action by the Seeley Lake Volunteer Fire Department, which has earned the praise of the store owners, the state fire marshall, and a detective investigating the incident.
"You can't say enough about them, can you!" Thompson exclaimed. "They left a clean and tidy crime scene like they had gone to class and this was the final exam."
Detective Rick Newlon with the Missoula County Sheriff's office, said "...another five minutes of burn time and it would have burned to the ground."
In praising the work of the fire department, Newlon said he has "...all kinds of evidence" that he normally doesn't have, but that it's going to take a lot of lab work.
Seeley Lake fire chief Peggy Westphal said she was "really proud of the crew going in there and getting the job done."
The alarm was called in by an unidentified person at 2:18 a.m. last Thursday morning. By 2:26 a.m., eight minutes later, Joe Ellinghouse and Dave Fortune were at the scene with the first fire engine.
Mutual assistance came from Condon and Ovando fire units and eventually there were eight fire engines and water tenders, an ambulance, and 21 firefighters on the scene, Westphal said.
With oxygen tanks stored in the building and potential toxic fumes, firefighters had to wear breathing apparatus and work in 20-minute shifts. Owner Lewis pulled open part of the front garage door, allowing firefighters to enter and remove the oxygen tanks.
Lewis unlocked the front door, so computer business records could be salvaged.
The fire was brought under control in 45 minutes and completely extinguished two hours later, Westphal said.
Noting some suspicious things, Westphal called in the State Fire Marshall Bruce Goodwin who advised notifying the Sheriff's office of arson.
Detective Newlon said Tuesday he has been in town talking to people and "trying to put the pieces together."
"We do have physical evidence, but it is not yet processed," he said. He said it appeared arson was the sole motive, but there are other possible theories, he added.
"We're primarily looking for people who saw anything or have heard anything," Newlon said, urging people to call his office at 523-4810, Crimestoppers at 721-4444, or himself through 911.
Newlon said fires were started in more than one place, but declined to speculate on the methods used or how entry was gained.
Thompson said she and Lewis speculated the fire was caused from electrical problems and that she felt "forlorn" when she learned it was arson.
"You invest so much in it," she said. "Who can be that mean or evil?" she questioned, adding that she didn't "...understand senseless destruction."
Also, she wonders if the fire was directed at them (the owners) personally or if it was a senseless, random act.
"It's a huge inconvenience," she added. "I don't know where the pleasure is in it."