A fire that gutted Kansas University's Hoch Auditorium was almost wholly responsible for pushing the year's fire damage estimate to a five-year high, fire department records indicate.
The June 15 fire caused $13 million damage, a figure that represents more than 90 percent of total fire damage in the city during 1991. Total property loss for all fires in the city during the past year was estimated at about $14 million.
Fire department statistics list property damage from 1990 fires at $940,000. Between 1986 and 1989, property losses have ranged between $512,000 to $965,000.
Lawrence Fire Chief McSwain said the Hoch fire was the department's "biggest challenge" of 1991 because of the intensity of the blaze and the amount of damage it caused. He said manpower was stretched thin when the fire started because of another blaze being fought at Packer Plastics Inc., 2330 Packer Rd.
And what made the day even more memorable, he said, was that firefighters fought the blazes during a severe thunderstorm that produced heavy lightning.
Lightning was blamed for the fires at Packer and Hoch. Officials said a lightning bolt struck Hoch, which was not outfitted with lightning rods, and ignited the roof.
McSwain said he thought the firefighters did a tremendous job of extinguishing the fire before it could spread through the rest of the campus. Firefighters' efforts, he said, were particulary impressive considering that they had to contend with lightning, a manpower shortage brought on by the Packer fire and a large crowd that gathered to watch the Hoch fire.
Although he did not have the statistics on how many fires the department had responded to this year, McSwain said that firefighters responded to 1,454 alarms as of Tuesday afternoon in 1991.
That's a slight drop from 1990, when firefighters responded to 1,509 alarms.
McSwain said one of the year's highlights occurred in February, when the fire department added nine firefighters and two other employees. City voters in 1990 approved a half-cent sales tax to fund manpower boosts for the police and fire departments.
The department now has 75 firefighters, four administrative staff members and three staff employees.
McSwain said three firefighters were added to each of the three shifts.
"Now we have a minimum of 22 firefighters on any given shift," McSwain said.
In retrospect, McSwain said that 1991 was a good year for the department and for Lawrence residents.
"We haven't had any lives lost . . . it's been a fairly average year. Except for Hoch," he said.