On The Job: Alaska - Multiple Challenges for Juneau Crews at Fire Involving Century-Old Structure


Chief: Eric Mohrmann
Personnel: 40 career firefighters, 60 volunteer firefighters
Apparatus: Six pumpers, two aerials, two rescues, three ARFF units, four ALS ambulances, three reserve pumpers
Population: 30,684
Area: 3,248 square miles

A 108-year-old historic building in downtown Juneau, AK, was destroyed by fire on Aug. 15, 2004. The structure housed mostly tourist-oriented businesses that were open and operating at the time of the fire. In heavy smoke, firefighters and police had to evacuate 1,000 people from the downtown area just as more than 7,000 cruise ship passengers and crew members were due to arrive at nearby docks just a block away.

The two-story wood-frame building was built in 1896 of balloon-type construction with a flat roof. Historically, the building was operated as a hardware store for most of its existence. In 1918, the building served as Juneau's first mortuary when the Canadian Pacific liner Princess Sofia ran aground on Oct. 24. More than 300 people perished in the shipwreck, which occurred 40 miles from Juneau.

Numerous renovations over the years created many void areas in the structure. The building also had multiple layers of plywood and asphalt roofing built up on it. Each floor of the structure contained 12,375 square feet. The building was equipped with an automatic wet sprinkler system, but not in concealed spaces. Eighteen businesses, mostly small tourist shops and eateries, occupied the building. At the time of the fire, the businesses were open and occupied. Upon arrival of the fire department, the occupants were self-evacuating.

The Capital City Fire and Rescue Department was dispatched to a reported structure fire at the Skinner Building, 213 Front St., at 2:49 P.M. Engines 11 and 23, Truck 12, a 100-foot quint, and Rescue 1 responded with five firefighters under the command of Captain Keith Walker. Engine 11 was positioned on Front Street, in front of the building, side A, and hooked onto a hydrant with 25 feet of supply line. Initially, light smoke was coming out of the eaves on both the A and B sides of the building. Minor flames were also visible in the wall on the A side on the second floor.

The fire appeared to be in exterior concealed spaces of the roof, walls and floor at this time. Engine 23 was positioned on the C side of the building and hooked on to a hydrant with a 25-foot supply line. This engine pressurized the building's sprinkler system with two 2.5-inch lines connected to the fire department connection at 150 psi. Truck 12 was positioned on the D side of the building supplied with a 600-foot supply line. Firefighters advanced a 1.5-inch pre-connect from Engine 11 into the interior of the structure. This crew entered through a second-floor window and attempted to open up the interior wall. Due to heavy construction, progress was very slow.

Firefighters left the interior and began opening the wall from the exterior. These firefighters were ordered to abandon their position on the awning when fire broke through the wall and was burning the underside of the awning from which they were operating. Rescue 1 was positioned a block away out of the smoke. Fire Marshal Richard Etheridge arrived on scene at 2:55 and took command of the incident.

At 3:20, Etheridge requested all available firefighting personnel to report to the scene. Engine 21, Truck 32, a 75-foot quint, Rescue 2, and Medic 2 and Medic 3 responded with off-duty personnel and volunteer firefighters.

Truck 32 was positioned at the A-D corner of the building and supplied with a 100-foot supply line. This aerial was placed to the roof for the ventilation team and later used as an aerial master stream. An exterior crew was assigned to open up the outside wall on the A side of the building and apply foam from Engine 11 in an effort to slow the fire's growth.

The interior crew operated inside the building for 20 minutes before exiting to change self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) bottles. Twenty-five minutes after arrival, a smoke explosion occurred. An attack team of four firefighters and Captain Dave Boddy were in the building at the time of the explosion. Etheridge ordered operations changed to a defensive mode at this time.

Truck 12 placed its ladder pipe into operation to protect the adjoining building. This was a small two-story, 1,200-square-foot wood-frame commercial building that contained offices. It was connected to the fire building by a common hallway. Truck 32 also placed its ladder pipe into operation. At 3:40, a partial collapse of the wall on the A side of the building occurred.

Two 2.5-inch lines were stretched to the top of the three-story Municipal Building, supplied by Engine 23. Three 1.5-inch lines were used at different locations around the building to extinguish small extension fires. A portable monitor was set up on the B side of the building for exposure protection. This monitor was left unmanned because of the potential for structural collapse. A rehab sector was established in a parking lot and staffed by nurses from Airlift North West Air Ambulance Service of Seattle, WA, and Capital City Fire and Rescue emergency medical technicians. This continued to operate, monitoring firefighters until noon on Aug. 16.

As the fire continued to rage, it spread to the adjoining building at 214 Seward St. Truck 32 was repositioned to the B side of the building. Three firefighters opened up the exterior wall and the automatic nozzle on the end of Truck 32's ladder was used to extinguish the fire.

Dense smoke permeated the entire downtown area, forcing a multiple-block evacuation of approximately 1,000 people by fire personnel and the Juneau Police Department. Numerous businesses and hotels were forced to close and an emergency evacuation center was established at the Centennial Hall by the Red Cross, but only 16 people used the emergency shelter.

Etheridge declared the fire under control at 3:45 A.M., on Aug. 16. The last Capital City Fire and Rescue equipment left the scene at 9:37 A.M. on Aug. 17. Sixty-one firefighters operated three engines, two aerials, one deluge monitor and numerous handlines to bring the fire under control. Four firefighters suffered minor injuries fighting the fire. No civilians were injured.

The fire occurred when more than 7,000 cruise ship passengers and crew members were scheduled to arrive at nearby docks one block away. Most tourists returned to their ships on their own and the ships left port early due to the heavy smoke conditions. At the time of the fire, the temperature was 85 degrees with no wind.

An investigation by Capital City Fire and Rescue and the Juneau Police Department determined that the fire was caused by workers applying hot tar to the roof. Investigators also determined that there was at least a 15-minute delay in calling the fire department, as workers tried to extinguish the fire. Damage was estimated at over $1 million.

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.