Fire & Ice - Plus A Flood

Lawrence E. Phillips recounts the triple disasters that assailed a North Dakota city and challenged its firefighters.


Grand Forks Fire Department Chief Richard J. Aulich Suppression & administration staff: 64 people Three fire stations: Central (headquarters) engine, tower ladder, rescue, hazmat, battalion chief; Columbia Road engine; South engine Population: 52,000 Area: 20 square miles It was...


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"Just because the building catches fire doesn't mean they're going to leap into the water and try and swim away…We were very, very concerned that there were people in these buildings and we did actually get people out of many of these buildings (when the fire started, and, during the early stages of the other buildings igniting) with Coast Guard boats and so forth."

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Photo courtsey of Grand Forks Fire Department.
Training Officer Mike Flermoen was in charge of locating people who lived in the fire buildings.

Allard continued, "To compound the situation even further, when we were there knocking on doors to chase people out, they thought we were there because of the flood and they were hiding out from us because they didn't want to evacuate because of the flood. A lot of people decided to stay in their downtown apartments; the second and third floor people; just to ride the flood out. They weren't willing to leave their possessions and whatever. They had nowhere to go. They don't realize they've got a fire situation on their hands...We had people literally run away.

"Deputy Chief Pete O'Neal chased two people up six flights of stairs to catch them...to get them out of the building across the street from the Security Building, right in the fire. They thought he was trying to get them out because of the flood. They knew absolutely nothing about the fire at that point. So there are many, many different things going on at that stage…virtually no method at all of accounting for anybody.

"Now the entire city is evacuated; they didn't go to the Red Cross and get temporary housing in a motel like in a normal fire situation. We had people going to shelters in Mayville, North Dakota; Crookston and Bemidji, Minnesota; at our own Air Force Base some 15 miles from downtown; virtually every city was putting up shelters for us, so we had people going to the four winds at that point. Our training officer, Mike Flermoen, has been on this since the beginning, and he has tracked people down in Kentucky and even in California. I mean, there are people literally all over that just left town because everything they ever had is either burned up, flooded out or both. We would take people off the accountability list that we formed, and then we would get to someone that told us about two or three people that lived in the room next door to 'Joe,' so all of a sudden our list would be added to again."

To be on the safe side, though, six canine search teams, each consisting of a dog and trainer, arrived in Grand Forks on May 6. But at about the same time as their arrival, Flermoen had completed his check on the master list that he had compiled from all available sources.

The fire likely started in an 18-inch void space between the basement drop ceiling and the bottom of the first floor of the Security Building, according to Ray Lambert, North Dakota deputy state fire marshal.

"This was turn-of-the-century construction," he said. "It seems a fair assumption that the floodwaters had something to do with the fire starting. Our office also looked at three other residence fires in Grand Forks during the flood that we feel could have started the very same way, with the water coming in and over the electrical service. Electrical equipment getting wet with dirty river water could cause the current to bypass electric safety devices, and circuits or wires could get overloaded. It would be possible to measure the resulting heat in the thousands of degrees, enough to ignite materials. We know of no other ignition source" (except electrical) but the cause is still not definite.

Lambert added, "Where the fire broke through from the basement was at a center 'seam' in the building at the base of the stair tower, that went to the upper levels. The fire traveled up the non-protected stair tower to the roof, and was made visible through a service ventilation opening in the center of the building's roof."


Lawrence E. (Larry) Phillips is a 35-year veteran of the fire service and chief instructor at Northwest Region Fire/Rescue in Jamestown, ND, where he works with over 1,500 fire departments and rescue squads in the five-state Upper Midwest area. He began his career with the Bethpage, NY, Fire Department.