Stillwater, Oklahoma Firefighters Battle Restaurant Fire

At approximately 1745 hours on May 7, 2003 the Stillwater (OK) 911 Center received a call reporting smoke inside the structure at El Vaquera Restaurant at 5020 West 6th Avenue. Stillwater Fire Department Stations 1, 2 and 4 were dispatched under the command of Battalion Chief Eric Seeliger. All occupants of the building, including diners, were safely evacuated from the structure by the restaraunt staff prior to arrival of fire units.

Upon arrival of Pumper 4, smoke and fire were reported as well as the sprinkler system operating. Pumper 4 began interior attack on side 1 (south) side. Upon arrival, Pumper 1 laid a supply line to Pumper 4 (which was operating the reserve pumper as their regular unit was being serviced) while Pumper 2 fed the sprinkler connection. Ladder 2 was staged on the highway access road south of the building. Battalion Chief Seeliger immediately directed the 911 Center to page Administrative staff and intiate a recall of all off-duty firefighters to cover empty stations.

The building, which was constructed around 1985, was of spanish design. Exterior walls were 18 to 24 inches in width and hollow to give an appearance of adobe construction. Interior construction of the walls was metal studs covered with an impregnated fibreboard material and plywood which was covered on the outside with stucco. (These spaces were not sprinklered.) A clay tile covered roof extended from side1 over the entrance and a storage area. Two "towers" were located at the east and west ends of side 1. The storage area , entrance and "towers" were separated from the rest of the structure by a gypsum board partition. The building was fully sprinklered.

Firefighters found little fire on the interior of the structure and some sprinklers operating with considerable smoke evident. Walls and ceilings were opened and visible fire extinguished. However, the fire continued to advance within the exterior walls on side 1. The roof over the storage area was ventilated and again visible fire was extinguished. Ladder 2 laid a 5 inch supply line from a hydrant north of the building and was positioned on side 4 with its aerial raised to the roof. Despite firefighter's best efforts, the fire spread rapidly in the concealed areas within the exterior walls out of the reach of sprinklers and where it was extremely difficult to gain access. Holes were made in the wall with sledge hammers and puncture nozzles were tried without success. Fire eventually burst from the bell tower in the center of the wall on side 1 and then from the two "towers" at the east and west ends of this wall. Water was applied to these fires from the ladder pipe on Ladder 2 and hand lines in the parking lot, but the bell tower eventually collapsed onto the roof above the storage area. This allowed the crew of Ladder 2 to direct their ladder pipe into the wall cavity and control the fire in the center of side 1. Fire in the two "towers" continued to burn until two backhoes summoned from the City of Stillwater arrived and tore the outside walls down to permit firefighters access to the interior. With the help of the gypsum board partition, firefighters were able to prevent fire extension into the rest of the building. The fire was declared under control at approximately 2330. A crew was left on the scene overnight to control hot spots and prevent a rekindle.

Water supply was adequate with a 16 inch main available along the highway south of the building. With numerous SCBA in use, the SFD air trailer was special called to the scene to replenish air bottles. When this supply began to run low, Oklahoma State University Fire Service Training brought their air trailer to the scene to augment the supply.

The cause of the fire is under investigation by the Stillwater Fire Marshal. Damage to the building and contents has been estimated at $650,000.00.