Wis. Crews Battle Downtown Apartment Fire

MADISON, Wis. --

Madison fire crews spent hours battling a downtown apartment building fire on Thursday that displaced 27 residents.

The fire at the Capitol Hill Apartments, in the 100 block of North Webster Street, near Capitol Square, began at about 5 a.m., and it took firefighters eight hours to extinguish it.

Residents evacuated the building on their own and called 911. Everyone made it out safely.

"It was a little after 5 (a.m.) and I woke up to a smoke alarm, and I actually thought it was my alarm clock going off," said Shayla Dvorak, a building resident. "We were across the street and we had to keep moving because the smoke was getting worse and worse."

Smoke engulfed the downtown area for much of the morning as about 50 firefighters battled for hours to put out the blaze.

The smoke from the fire spread through downtown streets, and Fire Department officials asked motorists to avoid the area if possible. Nearby buildings were also evacuated due to the heavy smoke.

Madison Fire Department spokeswoman Lori Wirth said the fire quickly went to two alarms as crews worked to protect adjacent buildings. Neighboring buildings sustained smoke damage but were protected from fire and structural damage.

Wirth said flames were still shooting through the building's roof as of 6 a.m., and firefighters had to exit the building for a time because of structural concerns.

"Sometimes people see brick exterior and think, 'Oh, that's not going to burn.' Brick exterior means only on the outside. Interior, all kinds of things can burn, including the supporting structure. That apparently is what's happened," Wirth said.

Much of the fire attack focused on the roof, where fire burned just under a rubber covering. Firefighters trained streams of water from two ladder towers to keep the flames under control.

"What we've got is a real stubborn fire in the attic space and the roof itself. Much of the roof is gone. However, it's all burning and the fire has been under way now for several hours, so what we're looking at is a structurally unsound building," Wirth said.

Water misters were brought in to keep fire crews cooler as they work. The Salvation Army opened a canteen to provide responding personnel with lunch and drinks to stay hydrated.

Wirth said the fire also damaged a restaurant, Underground Kitchen, which is located on the first floor of the building. One of the restaurant partners said it's devastating to see the damage.

"Opening your first restaurant is the hardest thing ever. And so the amount of hours that went into that place, personally, there are spaces in that restaurant that I have spent more time in than anyone else in my entire life," said Jonny Hunter, of Underground Kitchen.

The popular restaurant has been open only eight months, but owners said they hope they can return to the space they extensively renovated after Cafe Montmartre closed.

"My hope would be that we could be in this space because we put such a labor of love into it and just the amount of time and thought process that went into renovating the space was pretty huge or us. So we are really committed to that space. If that doesn't happen, it is our plan to have a restaurant downtown," Hunter said.

The Madison Fire Department said that crews will remain at the scene to water down any remaining hot spots. A crew is expected to be assigned to an overnight fire watch in the event of a rekindle.

The American Red Cross-Badger Chapter was assisting displaced residents. The Red Cross said 24 apartment units were reported as destroyed. The Red Cross said, at this time, it's assisting with emergency food and housing for two residents. Other residents will be staying with family and friends, according to the Red Cross' disaster action team leader at the scene.

As a gesture of downtown kindness, the Concourse Hotel is offering up 24 rooms for eight days; starting Friday, displaced residents will be able to take advantage of that offer.

East Washington Avenue has been reopened to traffic up to the Capitol. However, two blocks of North Webster and East Mifflin remain closed, according to fire officials.

The Madison Streets Department has been called to sweep Mifflin Street and Webster Street of debris in advance of reopening both streets Thursday evening.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation. No damage estimate has been given.

Fire Affects Nearby Businesses

The fire caused some headaches for those driving downtown and a tense situation for some nearby businesses.

The Old Fashioned on the Capitol Square, as well as a couple other restaurants, closed due to the smoke.

At the Bartell Theatre, which is on Webster Street two buildings down from the one that caught fire, Managing Director Sarah Hoover said she wasn't sure if the theater would be dealing with smoke damage until Thursday afternoon when she got inside and discovered things were fine.

"We can't afford smoke damage. We can't afford water damage. We're running really close to the line anyway, so I'm thrilled (the theatre wasn't damaged). And I'm obviously very sad for all the rest of the people on the block," Hoover said.

Hoover said when she arrived at the scene at about 5 a.m., she could see that the fire was centralized to the Capitol Apartments and the Underground Kitchen.

"But there was a lot of smoke, a lot of smoke," Hoover said. "I was worried about them. I was worried about the theater and that whole block. There are such wonderful buildings down that whole block, all local businesses."

Hoover said a show set for Thursday night at the Bartell Theatre would go on as planned.

Mercury Café, which is located next to the Capitol Hill Apartments, sustained significant water damage and heavy smoke damage from the fire.

"It's miserable. I'm kind of in a shock. I see what I see with my eyes, but it's hard to kind of believe it," said Vasilis Kallias, owner of the Mercury Café.

Kallias said it's going to take a couple of weeks to get the Mercury Café back open, and maybe longer. He said he does have insurance. He also owns Opa Cafe & Lounge on State Street.

The YWCA on Mifflin Street was evacuated after numerous 911 calls from occupants who complained of respiratory complications from the extensive smoke in the area. A Metro bus arrived at the scene to transport the YWCA occupants to the Salvation Army.

The YWCA was reopened Thursday afternoon shortly after the fire was extinguished and the smoke dissipated, fire officials said.

Some Metro buses were being rerouted earlier Thursday but normal Metro service returned to the Capitol Square by the evening. Metro said it will run regular service on the Capitol Square on Friday and it will follow the Capitol loop all day Saturday.

Stay tuned to WISC-TV and Channel 3000 for continuing coverage.

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