April 28, 2012

Fire destroys lumber building near campus

An overcast day in Galesburg got gloomier Saturday when the lumber storage building of People’s Do-It Center, 468 E. Berrien St., burned to the ground.

The building, which caught fire around noon Saturday, belched smoke into the sky for about three hours, and fire officials said the cause of the blaze is yet to be determined. There were no injuries.

Smoke from the fire covered campus, bringing with it plenty of ash. The Prairie Fire baseball game a quarter-mile away was shrouded in a haze of smoke.

People’s employees became aware of the fire when a passerby ran inside the retail building, according to Bradley Tenhaaf, an employee there. Tenhaaf said another employee may have been in the lumber building, which is about 20 feet away from the main building, and Tenhaaf ran into the burning building to make sure no one was in there.

“There was one guy out on lunch, and I just wanted to make sure no one was in there,” Tenhaaf said.

At the height of the blaze, there were three Galebsurg fire trucks on the scene, with four hoses pouring water onto the building, which was nearly decimated after a half hour. Off-duty firefighters were called in for assistance, officials said.

About 15 minutes in, a transformer attached to an electrical pole just feet from the building exploded, leaving a live wire a few feet from firefighters. The wire was soon taken care of.

Though fire officials are still ruling the cause of the incident undetermined and under investigation, there is no doubt about the magnitude of the blaze.

“This was a major loss … and there were plenty of combustibles in there,” fire investigator Mike Whitson said.

On top of the piles of smouldering lumber, Whitson said sawdust and roofing tar stored there probably fed the fire.

Fire Chief Tom Simkins said about an hour into the blaze that the building was completely lost, and at that point, it was a matter of making sure the fire did not spread. Firefighters’ major concern during the blaze was its potential to spread to the main People’s building or to a large propane tank about 40 feet west of the smouldering building.

“If that (propane tank) starts heating up, we have big problems,” Simkins said, as piles of wood sat between the fire and the tank.

An Ameren employee on the scene, Perry Wickline, said there were no issues with the natural gas lines, but the propane tank “would be a big concern.”

“Luckily, (the tank) is sitting where it’s sitting,” he said, far enough away from the flames.

By 2 p.m., almost two hours after the fire started, there were a few small flames at the corners of the building, with blankets of grey smoke still billowing from the rubble. Firefighters were pulling apart stacks of smouldering lumber in order to get water into the stacks.

Whitson said the “undetermined” official cause will probably remain so for weeks as they sift through the rubble.

“There’s going to be a lot to dig out,” Whitson said. “We’ll be bringing in some heavy equipment, and it’s going to take a while to dig stuff out.”

People’s owner Steve Hawkinson said he hopes to have the store open by Monday, or as soon as power is restored to the building.

“This is a temporary interruption for business,” Hawkinson said. “As soon as we have lights on, we’ll be open.”

Eventually, Hawkinson said, he plans to build a new lumber storage building. In addition to lumber, tar and the building itself, Hawkinson said a forklift and log splitter were lost in the fire.

Fire Capt. Scott Benson, officer in charge on the scene, said this was his first fire operation in charge. Though the blaze was heavy, he said he was glad there were no injuries.

“This is a good start, because I got to report that everybody was out of the building,” Benson said.

Editor’s note: This story was originally done for the Galesburg Register-Mail. It has been edited for The Knox Student.

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