Investigators say fallen power pole started fire, causing $4M in damage to Lawrence tractor business

photo by: Conner Mitchell

Firefighters respond to a fire at Heritage Tractor, 1110 E. 23rd St., on Saturday, May 5, 2018.

Saturday’s fire at a Lawrence tractor business was accidental, started by a power pole that broke off at its base and fell on top of the building, fire investigators said Wednesday.

The fire caused an estimated $4 million in damage to the building and its contents, said Division Chief and Fire Marshal James King of Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical.

King said that when the pole fell transformers attached to it pierced the roof of Heritage Tractor at 1110 E. 23rd St. Ensuing electrical arcing started a fire in the business’s tool room, igniting items and shelving, he said.

Beyond ruling that the toppled pole caused the fire and that it was an accident, the fire department investigation won’t include a ruling on what caused the pole to break, King said.

He said that would fall to Westar Energy, which owns the pole.

“They’re going to look closely as to why that pole broke,” King said. “As a fire investigation goes, we do not have any reason to believe that there was any mischief involved.”

An aerial photo shows damage to Heritage Tractor, 1110 E. 23rd St., caused by a fire that occurred on Saturday, May 5, 2018.

By Wednesday morning, a new pole with three transformers on top had already been erected where the old one had fallen.

Westar Energy spokeswoman Gina Penzig said late Wednesday that she could not answer why the pole fell, or if and when that particular pole was last inspected.

“We are gathering any related records to that, and that will be a part of the investigation and reporting that we work on,” she said.

Penzig said Westar had retrieved and stored the pole and transformers offsite, and that an expert was scheduled to inspect the equipment next week.

Penzig said Westar had been working with the fire department and would share information with them “as it’s appropriate” once Westar’s internal inspection and report was complete.

Generally, Westar has an ongoing pole inspection system where poles throughout its service territory are tested, she said. She said the company also checks out equipment that its employees or outside callers report may need attention.

More than two dozen firefighters and 10 trucks battled the fire for more than three hours Saturday, from 7 p.m. until about 11:30 p.m.

One firefighter suffering heat exhaustion was taken to the hospital and was treated and released.

Though the building’s primarily metal exterior remains standing, the fire burned through its showroom up front, the parts room and the warehouse area where repairs are done. The fire also burned through the roof, after melting out fiberglass skylights in the shop area.

King said the “significant” financial loss included both damage to the building and to some costly equipment the business had inside.

“They had a significant parts room and parts inventory. The showroom had a large number of lawn mowers in it that were destroyed in the fire. There was customer equipment back in the shop,” he said.

The fire hit Heritage Tractor at its busiest time of year.

“Despite the best efforts of the firefighters, the building was severely damaged,” the business said in a press release this week. “Heritage Tractor has no plans to leave the Lawrence community and talk of rebuilding has already begun.”

For now, Heritage’s Lawrence employees have been relocated to other Heritage locations.

The Lawrence sales team is temporarily selling equipment across the street at 1105 E. 23rd St. Parts and service requests are being handled at the Baldwin City and Topeka locations.