Fighting a house fire never is a stroll in the park, and it becomes much more difficult after dark, in snow and with the temperature hovering at zero.
That’s what Iola firefighters faced Wednesday and into the first hour of Thursday morning when the home of Donna Evans and Jim Skaggs at the south end of Ohio Street caught fire. Neither was home — she was working at Russell Stover Candies, said Fire Chief Don Leapheart, and Skaggs was in Chanute.
The firefight was complicated by the house having been remodeled several times and in several places, having an original ceiling, a dropped ceiling and the roof above both. That led firefighters to have to punch numerous holes in the ceilings, particularly “after the roof pancaked onto the ceilings,” said Tim Thyer, deputy fire chief. “It took a lot of holes to find and put out all the hot spots.”
Firefighters were engaged more then five hours, arriving just before 8 o’clock Wednesday night, Leapheart said. “We never had a chance to save the house. When we drove up, flames were going through the roof and the house was totally involved.”
A neighbor who lives in the block south reported the fire, Leapheart said, and from that distance it appeared that flames going through the roof were a tree on fire. The house, an older one, has several trees nearby.
When the roof stated to collapse, fear of significant structural problems prompted Leapheart to order firefighters to retreat from inside the house for a time, a safety consideration that seldom has to be taken, he said.
Frigid temperatures, which eventually dropped below zero, turned water sprayed to suppress the fire into ice that covered gear and made some equipment difficult to use. Icicles dangled from helmets.
“We kept water flowing through the hoses, or they would have frozen just like a garden hose does at home,” said Leapheart.
Thyer said when he removed his gloves to take photographs of the structure — he’s the department’s investigator — his hands quickly turned so numb he lost feeling.
“I had to go into the CERT truck and warm up,” he said.
Leapheart said having the Community Emergency Response Team truck on hand was a godsend.
“The CERT volunteers helped a lot,” he added. “They had hot coffee and a place in the truck for the firefighters to rehabilitate, to warm up. We also had a lot of help from Iola police, Allen County deputies and the city utility crew.”
Thyer said an investigation of the fire’s cause was being conducted and while he had a couple of ideas, “the fire may end up being of unknown origin. There’s nothing to indicate there was anything suspicious about it.”
ANOTHER fire, at mid-day Wednesday, destroyed a barn belonging to Winona English south of Gas.
“The barn, equipment in it and some goats were destroyed,” Leapheart said.
He said English told firefighters heat lamps were being used to warm young goats and that the lamps may have been what started the fire.