On Jan. 6, 2009, a four-alarm fire destroyed several businesses near the historic Imogene Theater in downtown Milton, FL. The building of origin, the Courthouse Square Professional Mall, was built in 1913 as a Ford dealership, with later additions to the rear in the 1950s and then later behind the adjacent Imogene Theater building.

The building was of ordinary construction — red brick with wood joists. The additions were concrete block structures with lightweight steel joist, all one story except for a small vacant second-floor area 20 feet deep behind the front facade. This area measured less than 1,200 square feet and there was no stair access to the second floor. The building had a flat roof covered with membrane roofing material. The roughly 10,000-square-foot building contained multiple business occupancies with a common ceiling and without rated separation.

This fire is of historic note. Nearly 100 years earlier, on Jan. 31, 1909, at 4:15 A.M., a disastrous fire began on almost the exact spot during a winter gale. The fire spread along the same section of the block and ultimately destroyed 22 buildings on several blocks in the downtown commercial district. Milton had no fire department, water system or firefighting equipment at the time. At 5 A.M., the Pensacola Fire Department was called for assistance. Pensacola firefighters loaded their steam fire engine onto a flatcar and it was brought to Milton by a special train, arriving at 9 A.M. This fire was the impetus for the installation of a system of fire hydrants, the purchase of firefighting equipment and the establishment of the City of Milton Fire Department in 1914.

First Response

The City of Milton Fire Department was dispatched to a commercial structure fire at the Imogene Theater at 6:50 P.M. At the time of the fire, about 10 people were inside.

City of Milton Engine 23, a 1,250-gpm pumper with the on-duty crew of four, and Fire Chief John E. Reble responded along with off-duty personnel. Automatic mutual aid was also dispatched on the initial alarm, including Bagdad Volunteer Fire Department Engine 13, a 1,000-gpm pumper; Skyline Volunteer Fire Department Engine 2201, a 1,250-gpm pumper; and Fire and Emergency Services Gulf Coast (F&ESGC) — Naval Air Station Whiting Field Ladder 24, a 1,000-gpm quint with a 55-foot aerial ladder. The first-alarm assignment brought four engines, a ladder, a rescue, three chief officers and 20 firefighters to the scene.

Engine 23 arrived to find heavy smoke coming from the building at 6860 Caroline St., adjacent to the theater. Engine 23 established a 100-foot, five-inch supply line from the hydrant at Caroline and Elmira streets and positioned at the west corner of the building. Captain Lee Devine established "Caroline Street Command" and conducted a size-up from three sides (south, west and north) and observed heavy, wind-driven smoke from the rear of the building, but no visible flames. An approaching cold front was producing 30-knot winds from the south-southeast.

Three exposures presented additional difficulties for firefighters. Exposure one (adjoining on the Bravo side) was a roughly 18,000-square-foot, two-story business occupancy built between 1913 and 1915 that had been subdivided into multiple tenant spaces. Four large window openings on the second floor were covered by plywood that overlooked the roof of the building of origin. This ordinary-constructed building of reinforced concrete with wooden joists was subdivided into three separate two-story bays by non-fire-rated construction. Each bay was comprised of approximately 3,000 square feet per floor. The entire building had a flat membrane-type roof. The east-bay first floor did not have access to the second floor and was divided into multiple tenant office spaces off of a central corridor. The east-bay second floor was accessible through an interior stairway at a front exterior door at grade and an exterior stairway at rear. The center-bay first floor was subdivided into front (vacant) and rear tenant spaces. The west-bay first floor connected with interior stairs to the west-bay second floor and the adjoining center-bay second floor as common law offices.

Exposure two, adjoining on the Delta side, was the three-story Imogene Theater, a cultural/historic assembly occupancy. Built in 1912, the building was of masonry construction, red brick and reinforced concrete with iron trusses and wood joists. The building had a low pitched roof with membrane roofing and brick parapet on all sides. The building is owned by the Santa Rosa Historical Society and contained a museum of local history and a small meeting room on first floor and a performing arts theater on main (second floor) and balcony levels. Each floor contained 10,000 square feet.

Exposure three, adjoining on the Charlie side, was Polka Dots, a 5,360-square-foot toy store. The one-story building was constructed of red brick with wooden joists before 1910. This building also had a flat membrane roof. The building contained approximately 5,360 square feet of sales floor and storage area.

Initial Operations

Reble responded directly from his home and arrived moments behind Engine 23. Upon arrival, he was advised of conditions and assumed command. The command post had been established near the corner of Caroline and Willing streets. As initial attack lines were being deployed, a bystander advised that flames were visible from the building behind (north of) the Imogene Theater. An interior attack was initiated by the crew from Engine 23 using one 200-foot, 1¾-inch pre-connected attack line through the main entry on the Alpha side. The two-member interior crew advanced through the central corridor toward the rear of the building with the hoseline, hand tools and a thermal imaging camera. Engine 13 arrived at the front of the building and was assigned as a rapid intervention team.

Upon approaching the rear of the corridor, near the former Mudd Pitt coffee shop, the interior team experienced a substantially increasing heat condition and saw flames behind them. They could knock down the fire in this area with their hoseline, and began to back out of the building. Partial ceiling collapse occurred both ahead and behind the interior team, partially blocking the firefighters' exit from the building. Flames began to roll from the front door along with increasing heavy, dark smoke. Evacuation was ordered and the rapid intervention team was activated to assist the interior team in exiting the building. The initial attack line was abandoned in place and burned through.

Reble declared a change to a defensive strategy and requested a second alarm at 7:01 P.M. The East Milton Volunteer Fire Department responded with Engine 1501, a 1,000-gpm pumper with four personnel; the Skyline Volunteer Fire Department responded with Engine 2202, a 1,250-gpm pumper with four personnel; the Avalon Fire Rescue District responded with Engine 1201, a 1,000-gpm pumper with four personnel; and Pace Fire Rescue Ladder 21, a 75-foot quint with a 1,250-gpm pump responded with four personnel.

A collapse zone was established around the building of origin. Engine 23 was moved to the south side of Caroline Street, directly in front of the building of origin. As additional apparatus arrived, they were assigned defensive positions. Engine 2201 and Ladder 24 were assigned to the Charlie (rear) side and directed to protect adjacent structures and to direct master streams into the building of origin. Water supply was established from a hydrant at Berryhill Street. An entry team from Engine 2201 attempted to enter the second floor of exposure one (west of the building of origin), but was driven out by intense flames that quickly breached the plywood covering the window openings. One member of this team collapsed on the exterior stair landing and was removed by the rapid intervention team, treated and transported to the hospital with heat exhaustion.

Due to potential collapse and the danger presented by overhead electrical wires burning free, Engine 2201 and Ladder 24 were withdrawn from the Charlie side and relocated to the Bravo-Charlie (northwest) corner of the row of buildings on Elmira Street, where an elevated master stream and a hoseline were directed against advancing flames in the second floor and to protect a nearby residence.

Engine 1501 established a water supply from a hydrant at the southeast corner of the courthouse and was assigned to the Delta (east) side of the Imogene Theater. Crews were directed to prepare to defend the interior of the theater on the main (second) floor. Ladder 21 was assigned to the Delta side of the building of origin, toward the rear of the Imogene Theater, to direct an elevated master stream onto the burning building where the roof had burned through and to protect exposures. Engine 2202 was assigned to a position on Willing Street, securing a water supply from an underground hydrant on the east side of the street.

Reble requested a third alarm at 7:53 P.M. The Escambia County Fire Department responded with Ladder 12, a 75-foot quint with a 2,000-gpm pump, and four personnel from Osceola Station; and Engine 711, a 1,000-gpm pumper with four personnel from Ferry Pass Station; the Munson Volunteer Fire Department responded with Engine 1901, a 1,000-gpm pumper, with four personnel; and the Midway Fire Rescue District responded with Command Bus 35 and two personnel.

Reble assigned Santa Rosa County Emergency Services Coordinator Brad Baker as deputy incident commander. Escambia Ladder 12 was assigned to the Alpha-Bravo corner (Caroline and Elmira streets), with a water supply established by Pumper 23 from the hydrant at Elmira and Oak streets, and directed to apply an elevated master stream toward the advancing flames in the second floor. Engine 23 directed its master stream against the west wall of the Imogene Theater throughout much of the operation to protect this wall and limit extension through windows into the building. A 1¾-inch attack line from Engine 23 was advanced through the front stairs up to the balcony level to check the flames that had breached to windows on the west side. A 2½-inch attack line from Engine 1501 was advanced up the east stairway to the main theater level. This line had greater effect, but threatened the crew operating from the interior stairs, which was withdrawn. This second line remained in place within the theater or at the stair door, operating until the threat from the adjacent building had subsided.

A salvage crew was assigned to place salvage covers and protect artifacts in the first-floor museum. The Midway command bus was positioned at Caroline and Willing streets and used as the command post. A rehab area was established on the front lawn of the courthouse near Elmira Street by the county's EMS provider, Lifeguard Ambulance.

Reble requested a fourth alarm at 8:25 P.M. Ladder 3416, a 65-foot quint with a 1,250-gpm pump, responded with four personnel from F&ESGC — Naval Air Station Pensacola Outlying Field (OLF) Saufley Field; Escambia County Fire Department Engine 6, a 1,000-gpm pumper with four personnel, and Air 6 responded with two personnel from Ensley Station; Engine 5, a 1,250-gpm pumper, responded with four personnel from McDavid Station; and Engine 9, a 1,000-gpm pumper, and four personnel responded from Century Station. Also responding were Pensacola Fire Department Engine 1, a 1,000-gpm pumper, with four personnel and Fire Chief Frank Edwards; Skyline Volunteer Fire Department Engine 2203, a 1,000-gpm pumper, with four personnel; and Munson Volunteer Fire Department Engine 11, a 1,000-gpm pumper, and four personnel.

Engine 19 and F&ESGC Ladder 3416 were assigned to Delta Division to protect the Polka Dots toy store and prevent further spread up Willing Street. A 1¾-inch attack line was advanced from Engine 1901 into the toy store to protect against flames that eventually broke through the adjoining wall. Air units were assigned to the west side of the courthouse on Elmira Street. Personnel from additional engine companies (Engine 2203, Engine 1201, Engine 11, Pensacola Engine 1, and Escambia Engines 5, 6, 711 and 9) were assigned throughout the fireground as needed upon arrival.

Further progress of the fire was checked and heavy rainfall in advance of the approaching cold front greatly helped to cool the main body of the fire. Reble declared it under control at 11:30 P.M. Large-scale overhaul operations continued for several hours. All units, with the exception of Engine 23, were demobilized by 3 A.M. on Jan. 7. Engine 23 remained on scene watching for hot spots until the incident was terminated at 6:55 P.M. on Jan. 7. Rescue 23, Engine 23 and Reserve Engine 23 assisted in overhaul throughout the day on Jan. 7.

Incident Recap

Over 100 firefighters operated three aerial master streams, three deck guns, two portable master streams and numerous handlines to extinguish the fire. Two firefighters suffered minor injuries. Weather conditions during the fire included high winds and heavy rains.

Investigators from the Florida State Fire Marshal's Office and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) conducted a one-day, on-scene investigation. The fire is believed to have started in an office off the central corridor and spread through missing ceiling tiles (removed) to the common ceiling space. Heat and smoke were driven by strong winds through the ceiling space toward the rear of the building where the first flames were visible through the roof, behind the Imogene Theater. Damage was estimated at $1 million to the building and $1 million to the contents.

JAY K. BRADISH/IFPA, Firehouse® news editor, is a former captain in the Bradford Township, PA, Fire Department. He has been a volunteer firefighter and fire photographer for more than 25 years.