On The Job - Iowa: 28 Fire Departments Fight Stubborn Blaze in Sub-Zero Weather

28 Fire Departments Fight Stubborn Blaze in Sub-Zero Weather

Firefighters in the Midwest are acclimated to dealing with all types of emergencies in all extremes of weather. Frigid cold is one extreme that firefighters recount with no small amount of trepidation and a factor that compounded challenges confronting firefighters from 28 fire departments who responded to an alarm in Maquoketa, IA, when they confronted a downtown business district fire in the early-morning hours of Jan. 19, 2008.

With ambient temperatures far on the minus side, Maquoketa firefighters were summoned at 2:13 A.M. to a fire at 137 South Main St. in the city's downtown business district. Buildings in the area are typical 1800s two- and three-story heavy-timber ordinary construction with adjacent buildings adjoining one another for the entire length of a city block.

The fire was reported via a 911 call to the Jackson County Law Enforcement Center and simultaneously reported by an on-duty Maquoketa police officer. It was discovered by the tenant of the apartment building above Jackson County Home Furnishings. He came home and opened his apartment door only to be welcomed by a rush of smoke. The tenant dashed to a nearby bar and grill where he reported the fire.

Before the rapidly advancing fire could be brought under control, the home furnishings business building and two neighboring buildings, Breitbach Floor Coverings and Sue's Hallmark, succumbed to flames. The three buildings occupied a space of 18,500 square feet and had a floor space of over 50,000 square feet right in the center of the block. Firefighters were successful in saving adjoining buildings to either side after a gargantuan firefighting effort.

The all-volunteer Maquoketa Fire Department was on scene within seven minutes of the fire's report, with its heavy rescue first on scene. Assistant Fire Chief Al Muhlhausen, who was on that truck, said, "When we came around the corner and I saw the fire, flames weren't just coming out of the apartment windows, they were shooting out."

Fire Chief Mark Beck's initial report was that he had fire showing. He established command and knowing the fire load of the buildings and exposure situation, immediately made the first call for mutual aid to the Andrew and Delmar fire departments. Both departments are seven miles away.

Initial action was to pull two 1¾-inch handlines from the department's aerial and attempt an interior attack. Captain Craig Muhlhausen and Firefighters Jim Green and James Connolly attempted the attack. They went up the steps to the second-floor apartment, knocked the fire down and thought they had it under control. They were pulled back out because firefighters on the outside could see the fire had extended through wall and ceiling breaches into other areas of the building. There were also numerous breaches of the walls from heating, air conditioning and ventilation (HVAC) systems, electrical and gas lines that provided easy avenues for fire spread into adjoining structures.

"Things just didn't seem right, so we pulled them out and were regrouping for a second attack," Beck recounted. It was at that point when "something let go in the building," said Beck, recounting how either a flashover or backdraft explosion blew the storefront windows out into the street.

Beck's strategy immediately changed to a defensive mode and he switched to using the department's elevated master stream to attack the fire. The department's protocol is that the aerial goes to the front of the building and an engine sets up in the back. While the aerial battled the advancing fire from the front, crews set up an engine in the back. "They had the unfortunate experience of being downwind of everything," Beck said.

Beck recalls that with the aerial truck operating, firefighters had the upper hand on the fire. However, one hour into the incident, the department's aerial incurred a pump failure that took it out of service. "We were blackening the fire down pretty significantly with our aerial; then it made this horrible grinding sound," Beck said. "We looked underneath of it and there was fluid leaking from it."

More calls for mutual aid were issued and would continue throughout the morning until fire departments from Andover, Andrew, Baldwin, Bellevue, Bernard, Calamus, Cascade, Charlotte, Clinton, Davenport, Delmar, DeWitt, Eldridge, Goose Lake, Grand Mound, LaMotte, Long Grove, Lost Nation, Lowden, Miles, Monticello, Onslow, Preston, Sabula, Springbrook, Welton and Wheatland in Iowa in addition to the Fulton and Savanna fire departments from across the Mississippi River in Illinois became engaged in the fire. Some of the departments self-dispatched to the incident, but as the fire progressed, the assistance of all were needed. Twenty-five of the departments are all volunteer and from rural communities spanning five counties.

As mutual aid began to arrive, equipment and firefighters were sent to a staging area in a grocery store parking lot south of the incident before being assigned. Crews were rotated through the fireground. "It was 10 below zero, adrenaline would keep these guys going for a while, but eventually it would catch up to them and they needed relief," Beck said.

When the call for aerial apparatus was issued five responded from Clinton, Davenport, Fulton and Savanna. It was an hour before any of the aerials arrived. In that time, the fire had progressed to all three structures that were lost and was threatening to spread farther.

"We didn't know where we were going to stop this thing," Beck said. "It was an out-of-control fire. We had four deck guns and three 2½-inch handlines on the fire and we weren't keeping it in check." Four of the mutual aid aerial trucks were eventually used in fire operations.

In addition to being old structures, the fire buildings had huge fuel loads. They had built-up roofs, the furniture store was stacked full, and the carpet and flooring store was packed full of carpet from the basement to the attic.

Early in the incident, the Jackson County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) was staffed and took care of evacuating 48 apartment units in a neighboring block that were out of power due to the fire. All but eight of the people found housing with family members. Those who did not were housed in a hotel.

With so many apparatus operating over what was obviously going to be an extended operation, Beck had concerns about running out of fuel. Jackson County Emergency Management Coordinator Lyn Medinger located a tank wagon that pumped 660 gallons of fuel to fire apparatus. Many of the mutual aid departments filled using their own means. All totaled, $4,000 worth of fuel were used to combat the fire.

The defensive operation was sectored into sides A, B, C and D. Supporting the operation in such extreme weather became the largest challenge. The most critical support was for firefighters operating in the extreme cold and icy conditions. Two local Red Cross chapters, the Gateway Chapter and American Red Cross of the Tri-States, set up a rehab center at 8 A.M. for firefighters at the city's Community Center, a block from the fire. Typical of the Midwest, the entire community became involved in the incident. Maquoketa residents brought food, blankets and coffee. Main Street Cafe, across the street from the fire, opened up and provided food and a place for firefighters to warm up. The sign on the door said "Closed For Business, Except For Firefighters." Wal-Mart provided abundant supplies of hand warmers and dry socks. The problem was getting firefighters to take advantage of the relief. Beck noted that firefighters were so committed to the effort that they had a hard time getting them to take advantage of the relief they were being offered.

Adding to the need for mutual aid was word received by Beck from a city public works employee around daybreak that the city's 1.7 million-gallon water supply was dangerously low and city wells were not keeping up. The city was going to have to start shutting down the water supply to the operation. At the time, the operation was using an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 gallons of water per minute.

The water-supply impediment created a shift to rural water supply operations for the bulk of the required fire flow. A massive tanker-shuttle operation was implemented that used three fill sites and two dump sites with several portable drafting tanks set up at each site. Until local fill sites could be established, water was shuttled from neighboring communities for a brief time. One of the fill sites used was a Wendling Rock Quarry near Maquoketa, which had a pump on site that could pull more than 1,000 gpm. Another site was Century Concrete, which also committed its cement trucks to haul water. "Those trucks can really move and off-load a lot of water in a hurry," Beck noted.

The third fill site proved to be the most challenging. Preston Fire Chief Bill Yaddof and Fire Captain Dennis Driscol took command of the site at a landing on the Maquoketa River four blocks from the fire. To reach open water in the river, Yaddof and Driscol had to span a sheet of ice that extended 15 feet out into the frigid water with hard-suction hose. Once drafting was achieved using two pumpers in tandem, the problem became keeping water moving. If water movement was stopped, pumps valves and hose began to freeze up immediately. To compensate, when they weren't filling a tanker, water was pumped into a storm sewer.

Water from the tanker-shuttle operation was used to supply two aerial trucks, an estimated 3,000 gpm. When the shuttle was started, two out of every three tanker trucks were frozen up from having sat idle and could not offload water. These trucks were circulated through the Maquoketa Fire Station, which was being used to thaw trucks out and keep them operational.

Water-shuttle operations were maintained until 6 P.M., 12 hours during which a fire flow of 3,000 gpm to supply two aerial trucks was sustained uninterrupted. When the water-shuttle operation was broken down, freezing water inside the six-inch supply line used to pump water from the river had diminished the inside diameter of the line to the size of a beverage can.

The success of this operation had its roots in training, as noted by Assistant Chief Muhlhausen "Training with our mutual aid departments had already taught us that we could do this," he said. "We had practiced supplying water to our aerial with our mutual aid departments before." At the peak of firefighting operations, when water supply was primarily by tanker shuttle, an estimated 100 trucks, including the Century Concrete trucks, were committed to fighting the blaze.

Ice was a huge hazard that had to be dealt with. The temperature never rose above five below zero all day. Firefighters who manned master streams would have to be chipped away from them. The Maquoketa Public Works Department hauled several loads of salt and sand to the fireground and spread on traffic areas where ice had accumulated. They also committed end loaders to scrape away ice buildup in some areas.

Firefighters started to gain control of the fire at around 3 P.M. Beck said that the aerial trucks proved to be instrumental in preventing fire spread. Firefighters posted on the inside of both buildings adjacent to the fire buildings were instrumental in checking the fire as they worked on hot spots and kept the fire from burning through. Mutual aid departments began to be let go from the scene at 6 P.M., although crews remained on scene for another two days squelching hot spots. Mutual aid was called on one occasion just to give Maquoketa firefighters some relief.

Command for the incident consisted of the incident commander, front and rear sector officers, a public information officer and logistics officer (from the EMA), and water supply. For fireground operations, rather than assigning task responsibilities to individuals, they were assigned by fire departments. Each department was responsible for the accountability of its own people. "Luckily, we did not have entry, so accountability of firefighters inside of buildings was not a problem," Beck said. "The responding ranking officer of each department was placed in charge of accountability for their own firefighters. It wasn't a textbook command system, but it worked."

Communications among so many fire departments also was an issue, with firefighters resorting to the use of hand signals and face-to-face communications when the radio channels became clogged.

As to lessons learned, Beck has this to say: "I don't care how much pre-planning you do, you can't prepare for something like this. How do you prepare for the cold weather, your aerial truck going down and the city running out of water?"

Beck and Assistant Chief Muhlhausen both said there are things that a fire department can do that will help them cope with fires in such extreme cold and to maximize firefighter safety. Beck says firefighters need to be forced to go to rehab. They are action-oriented people and once they become focused on their mission, it is difficult to get them to take a break, even if they have exhausted themselves. Fire departments in areas subject to cold climates will also do well to invest in heating devices, whether they be hand and foot warmers for firefighters or space heaters to help warm firefighters or dry out their gear. Both Beck and Assistant Chief Muhlhausen also feel that fire department training and community support are the keys to success in these extreme situations.

In his 25 years on the Maquoketa Fire Department, Beck says this fire was the worst he had been involved with. The view was shared by Assistant Chief Muhlhausen, Medinger and Yaddof.

The Maquoketa fire tested the resources of a huge mutual aid sphere that included 28 fire departments, the Jackson County Emergency Management Agency, two Red Cross agencies and the community of Maquoketa. Though there was an inescapably large fire loss, the loss could have been of proportions that would have reached the realm of a declared disaster had it not been for the resourcefulness and skills of the fire departments, communities and emergency services personnel involved.

STEVE MEYER, a Firehouse® contributing editor, has been a member of the Garrison, IA, Volunteer Fire Department for 27 years, serving as chief since 1985. He also was acting chief of the Cedar/Mount Auburn Fire Department in 2006-07. Meyer is past-president of the Iowa Fire Chiefs Association, a graduate of the National Fire Academy (NFA) Executive Fire Officer Program, and is a contract instructor for Leadership and Administration with the NFA. In 1998, he received the State of Iowa Firefighter of the Year award.