Fire destroyed a Lawrence motel Monday, with bitter cold weather creating harsh conditions for firefighters battling the blaze all afternoon and plans to continue through the night.
Firefighters arrived at Americas Best Value Inn, 515 McDonald Drive, shortly before noon and found fire inside the three-story wood-frame building, said Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical Division Chief and Fire Marshal James King.
All occupants evacuated safely, but the building is a total loss, King said. He said the fire started in the lowest level but as of late Monday evening, investigators had not yet determined how.
The building, which has been a Super 8 motel in recent years, is located northwest of the intersection of Sixth and Iowa streets.
After about an hour of attacking the fire from the inside, a firefighter had a close call — he fell through a floor inside the building, King said. The firefighter was quickly rescued by nearby crews, evaluated at the scene and returned to his crew uninjured, King said.
However, the compromised floor is a sign the fire was further advanced than realized, having probably already traveled through utility passageways and voids in the structure, King said.
Firefighters made the decision to retreat and battle the fire defensively, pouring water on it from the outside.
“This fire and any fire, our priority is our safety, and then rescue, so we’re constantly monitoring conditions,” King said. “Rather than endanger the lives of the firefighters working inside, we opted to withdraw from the building.”
Over the next several hours the fire raged in intensity, with the building beginning to collapse and becoming engulfed in heavy smoke with flames shooting from the roof and sides around 4 p.m.
Shortly before 8 p.m., firefighters were still pouring water on the gutted building from multiple hoses, King said.
“Crews will continue to work through the night,” he said late Monday. “They’ll continue to extinguish any flare-ups of the fire, extinguish any hotspots.”
Tuesday morning, King said, crews planned to assess what was left of the structure, to determine whether investigators could enter the scene safely or whether heavy machinery would need to be called to raze the wreckage.
Roughly 40 firefighters worked the scene Monday, King said. Backup trucks from Wakarusa Township, Overland Park and Lenexa fire departments rolled in to help at the scene and to cover other Lawrence posts while crews were at the motel fire.
Monday afternoon, temperatures were in the low teens, with winds reaching 20 mph and a wind chill close to minus 5, according to Lawrence conditions reported by the National Weather Service.
Monday night it was 5 degrees, with an overnight low of minus 2 expected in Lawrence, according to the weather service.
Early on at the scene, ice and snow coated the parking lot around the building, and firefighters were sprinkling salt as they worked.
King said firefighters had no major problems with water supply or equipment, but did have to deal with replacing gear that got wet.
“When they came outside, their gear literally froze around them,” King said. “Nothing that we weren’t able to overcome, but these things factor in.”
A large city transit vehicle and a Douglas County Emergency Management vehicle were at the scene, providing a place for firefighters to warm up, eat and replace wet gear, King said.
King said he didn’t know how many occupants were inside the motel when the fire started, but that eight units were reported as leased at the time.
The building did not have a sprinkler system, King said; however, it was within city code. He said hotels and motels built or renovated in approximately the past 10 years are required to have sprinkler systems, but this one is old enough it was not required to have one.
King said the motel did have a monitored fire alert system that investigators believe functioned as it should — with smoke detectors triggering an alarm to warn occupants and alerting first responders.
— Elvyn Jones and Journal-World staff contributed to this report.