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

Steve Meyer reports on a downtown business district fire in Maquoketa, IA, that challenged firefighters from 28 departments due to frigid temperatures.


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...


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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."

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