Firefighters in Lake Wilson, Minnesota have begun the arduous process of rebuilding their fire department after losing everything in an apparent propane tank explosion two weeks ago.
The explosion damaged local homes and businesses and leveled the fire department's two stations which were located just 40 feet apart. One station was 11 years old and the other was built just a year and a half ago, to provide additional storage space.
"It'll be a long battle," said Chief Leroy Reese. "If you lose one truck, you can kind of recover from that, but when you lose all seven of your trucks and equipment it's a little harder to do," he said. "It took us many years to build up what we had."
The vehicles they lost included a '94 pumper, a '97 3500 gallon tanker, a rescue vehicle and a grass rig.
Reese said they salvaged some equipment from inside the rescue vehicle and they may be able to salvage about a third of their SCBAs after extensive testing. Everything else needs to be replaced.
The department is still working with their insurance company to determine how much of their replacement costs will be covered, the chief said. "There's always gonna be a shortfall somewhere," he said.
Lake Wilson firefighters are already back in operation with a pumper donated by nearby Maple Lake, and a tanker and turnout gear on loan from other departments. They are temporarily housing everything at a local fertilizer plant.
Reese said firefighters were shocked when they first saw the destruction at their fire stations.
The chief said he was sleeping when the explosion happened the night of January 12. "I heard a loud bang, and everything went black because the electricity was off," Reese said. "I told my wife I was going down to the fire hall because they were going somewhere, I just didn't know where yet. I headed up Main Street, and the closer I got - you could see what happened. There was no fire hall left. It was unbelievable," he said.
As firefighters congregated outside the former fire station they planned their response. Reese said they called for mutual aid, paired up, began securing the area and went house to house to check for injuries and damage.
Once the town was back in order firefighters turned their attention to cleaning up the destruction at their stations. Over 60 firefighters came from surrounding communities to help. "They brought not only their bodies, but dump trucks, saws, bobcats, a backhoe, a front end loader... if they had access to it, they brought it," Reese said.
The department's two sites were almost completely cleaned up that day. Fire officials plan to eventually rebuild on the same sites.
Reese said that despite this blow to the fire department, moral among firefighters is good. They've received an outpouring of support from the community and surrounding fire departments, and they have five new members.
They also know how to recover because they've been through disaster before - a tornado tore through the town in 1992. "You've got to add some humor to it," Reese said. "We rebuilt then, and we came away with a pretty good attitude after that."
However, Reese said this has been a lot for the small community of about 300 to take. Some houses are unsalvageable, and some residents and business may not choose to rebuild there. "I don't know how much banging around we can take but hopefully we'll come out of this one ok," he said.
Reese said the department's most urgent need is for an afforadable rescue van. If any departments or vendors have an inexpensive rescue vehicle for sale or donation they can contact Chief Leroy Reese at (507) 879-3463.