On The Job - Indiana: 5-Alarm Fire Guts Historic Structures in Lawrenceburg

On Sunday, Feb. 10, 2008, a five-alarm arson fire destroyed a pair of two-story historic buildings in downtown Lawrenceburg, IN. At the time of the fire, the temperature was 17 degrees Fahrenheit with 22-mph winds and a wind chill of zero. The extreme cold and strong winds caused ice to build up quickly on equipment and firefighters, making for a dangerous fire scene.

Erected in the late 1880s, the destroyed buildings were of Type III ordinary construction and had been remodeled several times over the years. They contained storefronts on the first floor and apartments on the second floor. The structures had pitched roofs covered with asphalt shingles.

The building of origin contained 3,000 square feet on each of the two floors. The structure was occupied by a screen-printing shop on the first floor and a single apartment on the second floor occupied by one resident. The building contained smoke detectors, but they were not connected to any type of central-alarm or monitoring system.

The Lawrenceburg Fire Department was dispatched to a reported structure fire at 13 East High St. at 5:12 P.M. Engines 410, 411 and 436, all 1,250-gpm pumpers; Rescue 1, a 2,000-gpm pumper; Ladder 425, a 75-foot aerial ladder with a 2,000-gpm pump; Tower 435, a 105-foot tower ladder with a 1,250-gpm pump; and Brush Truck 412 responded with 38 firefighters under the command of Fire Chief Randy Abner. Although initial dispatch reports indicated a possible entrapment, a follow-up report to firefighters while responding indicated that a person had evacuated the building.

Rescue 1 arrived first and was positioned just east of the structure on East High Street. The apparatus was supplied by a 200-foot, five-inch line from a hydrant at Walnut and High streets. Heavy fire was visible on the exterior of the C side with extension into the interior of both floors and the attic space. Ladder 425 was positioned in front of the building and set up for aerial master-stream operations. This ladder was supplied with a 200-foot, five-inch line from a hydrant at High and Vine streets. Tower 435 was positioned in the alley behind the building at the B/C corner and also set up for aerial master-stream operations. This tower was fed by a 100-foot, five-inch line from a hydrant located on Walnut Street.

Engine 436 was positioned in the rear alley at the C/D corner and supplied by a 300-foot, five-inch line from a hydrant on Short Street. Engine 410 was positioned on High Street just east of the fire building and supplied with a 400-foot, five-inch line from a hydrant at High and Short streets. Engine 411, Rescue 2 and Brush Truck 412 were staged at Walnut and High streets.

A crew from Rescue 1 initiated an interior attack on 13 East High St. Two firefighters made entry through the front door with a 200-foot 2½-inch attack line. Firefighters encountered heavy smoke with near-zero visibility, but could see heavy fire at the rear of the building. After knocking down the fire on the first floor, firefighters attempted to reach the second floor, but were driven back by extreme heat. Rescue 1 requested mutual aid from the Greendale Fire Department at 5:14 P.M. Engine 320, a 1,250-gpm pumper, and Tower 340, a 95-foot aerial platform with a 2,000-gpm pump, responded with 10 firefighters.

The occupancy at 11 High St. was part of the same wooden building that was occupied by 13 High St. A three-story brick building was located at 9 High St. This building contained a restaurant on the first floor and apartments on the second and third floors. To the east, 15, 17 and 19 High St. were storefronts with apartments on the second floor. A 12-foot alley separated 19 High St. from 21 and 23 High St., a wooden building that was connected to another block of buildings.

As the fire began to spread to the east and west, Abner ordered the interior crew to evacuate the building after approximately five minutes as fire conditions continued to worsen. At the rear, Tower 435 placed two aerial master streams into operation and Engine 436 placed its deck gun into operation. Ladder 425 placed its aerial master stream into operation from side A. Crews stretched additional handlines including two lines into 9 High St. to protect this exposure.

Abner requested additional mutual aid at 5:35. The Aurora Fire Department responded with Engine 515, a 1,250-gpm pumper; Engine 516, a 1,500-gpm pumper; Ladder 517, a 75-foot aerial ladder with a 1,250-gpm pump; and a support truck with 15 firefighters. At 5:39, the Bright Fire Department was requested to respond to the scene. Engines 811, 821, and 831, all 1,250-gpm pumpers, responded with 14 firefighters.

The fire spread west and consumed 11 East High St. It then spread east and consumed 15, 17, and 19 East High St. These addresses included two operating businesses on the first floor and apartments on the second floor. The Dillsboro Fire Department responded to a request for mutual aid at 6:16 as Engine 614, a 1,500-gpm pumper; Engine 611, a 1,250-gpm pumper; and Rescue 631 responded with 12 firefighters. The Manchester Fire Department responded for a request for mutual aid at 6:28. Engine 711, a 1,250-gpm pumper, and Rescue 731 responded with eight firefighters.

Due to high winds, the fire jumped across the alley to the east of the fire building and communicated to 21 and 23 East High St. at approximately 6:30 P.M. This was a two-story building that housed a pizza parlor and a vacant office on the first floor and four apartments on the second floor. The 23 East High St. building was attached to another block of buildings. With this in mind, a trench-cut operation was established at 25 East High Street. Crews from Aurora Ladder 517 and Greendale Tower 340 supported these operations. Truck 340 was supplied with a 300-foot, five-inch hydrant supply line and Aurora Ladder 517 was supplied with a 600-foot, five-inch hydrant supply line. The trench cut proved successful and firefighters stopped the fire from spreading to the next block of connected buildings. The Rising Sun Fire Department was requested to send Ladder 293, a 75-foot aerial ladder with a 2,000-gpm pump, at 7:23. Upon arrival, firefighters from this ladder assisted with roof-trenching operations.

Abner declared the fire under control at 11 P.M. Mutual aid departments were released at 1 A.M. on Feb. 11, and Lawrenceburg units left the scene at 7 A.M. Damage was estimated at $600,000 to the buildings and $200,000 to the contents. Three firefighters were injured during the incident. Four people were left homeless.

An investigation conducted by the Lawrenceburg Fire Department, Lawrenceburg Police Department, Dearborn County Sheriff's Department and Indiana State Fire Marshal's Office determined that the fire was incendiary in nature. Within 24 hours of the initial call, investigators had arrested a juvenile for starting the fire.

Due to the extremely cold temperatures and wind, large amounts of ice built up on firefighters and equipment. Some equipment suffered minor damage due to burning embers and the large amount of ice buildup. The buildings were over 120 years old and had been remodeled several times. Renovations included dividing the buildings into apartments with false walls and ceilings. This enabled rapid fire spread that was out of the reach of master streams.

Firefighters were able to limit the spread of the fire to a confined area of the historic downtown. Lawrenceburg had a similar fire about eight years ago at which the same type of operations were used. With this knowledge, firefighters could rely on the past experience to prevent this fire from becoming a major conflagration.

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.