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Archive for Thursday, April 6, 2000

Fire licks downtown

Smoke casts pall over heart of city

April 6, 2000

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A fire that began Wednesday afternoon behind a bakery and restaurant spread and destroyed an 80-year-old warehouse and caused smoke damage to several surrounding businesses in the heart of downtown Lawrence.

No one was injured in the first, which began behind Wheatfields Bakery, 904 Vt., but five firefighters were treated for heat-related injuries. Two of them were tranported to Lawrence Memorial Hospital, where they were treated and released.

Shortly after 4 p.m., Wheatfields employees learned that the back of the building was on fire.

"A customer came in and said the back door was on fire," manager James Wever said. "The engines were already arriving. We were going to put out our part but decided to get out." About 25 customers in Wheatfields were evacuated.

Lawrence-Douglas County Fire & Medical Chief Jim McSwain said the department received the fire call at 4:11 p.m.

Firefighters suited up in front of Wheatfields, just in front of the placard advertising "Fresh baked bread, wood-fired oven."

Although Wheatfields employees and firefighters say they are unsure how the fire began, they agree on where it started.

McSwain said the fire probably started near a woodshed behind Wheatfields, where the bakery stores its firewood.

Witnesses said the woodshed and the back wall of the building were in flames. Head chef Dan Fortel said that some flames were inside the bakery.

The fire spread to a neighboring storage building owned by Weaver's Department Store.

Complications

McSwain said the design of the warehouse that sits behind Wheatfields made fighting the blaze difficult.

Store manager Marlene Swaggerty said that Weaver's stores very little merchandise there. It is used mainly for gift boxes, wrapping paper, display fisxtures and company papers.

The bow-and-truss roof construction of the warehouse prevented firefighters from entering the burning building.

"That's a dangerous roof built to span a large area with no center support," McSwain explained. "It's called a firefighter killer."

The way the roof is designed, McSwain said, as heat builds up under it, the metal bends. At a certain point, the roof collapses all at once.

And it did.

Firefighters set up fans at the alley door to the warehouse and broke out windows in order to soak the flames but would not enter the building.

Instead, three fire engines with 75-foot ladders and hoses also were employed to battle the flames.

Another crew entered the Second Chance Children's Clothing store, 15 W. Ninth, to battle flames behind it.

McSwain said a small fire extended to the second floor of the Second Chance building, which received minor water damage.

When the roof of the warehouse collapsed, flames shot into the sky. Billowing clouds of black smoke were blown northeast farther into downtown as winds whipped the flames.

About 4:25 p.m., businesses along Vermont and Massachusetts streets from Sixth to Eleventh streets lost power. At the request of of the fire department, KPL workers killed the electricity to protect the fighters. Several electrical poles stand next to the warehouse, and a couple of them caught fire.

Power was restored for most of the area a few hours later.

Punk rockers, KU students, joggers and preschool children stopped in a city parking lost on Vermont Street to watch the firefighting. More than 100 people observed the action.

Fire's aftermath

As ash and soot floated down near the corner of Ninth and Massachusetts, firefighters continued to hammer the flames with water hoses until much of it died down about 6:15 p.m. They stayed to put out smaller patches of flame for another several hours.

With the warehouse roof collapsed and its inside charred, McSwain declared the building destroyed. No damage estimate was available Wednesday night.

Swaggerty said Weaver's would reopen today. Weber said without seeing the inside of Wheatfields that the bakery probably be closed for a month.

"Smoke did infiltrate the whole restaurant," Weber said. "We have to replace all the food, replace the wicker baking baskets and scrub everything down."

All of the businesses on the south side of Ninth between Vermont and Massachusetts suffered smoke damage, McSwain said, as did The Mad Greek, 907 Mass. McSwain said crews would be investigating the fire and its cause for much of the night.

After much of Wednesday's fire was extinguished, McSwain said downtown fires have not been as much of a problem as they were 20 years ago.

"It's been a lot better than the early 1980s. We were seeing a lot of fires then," McSwain said. "We think people know better how to prevent fires in businesses. We are inspecting downtown buildings once a year with safety checks.

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