Blaze wasn’t caused by arson

Published 10:49 am Monday, January 19, 2009

“There are a number of entities who have a property interest in the fire scene,” Austin Fire Chief Dan Wilson said today.

“We will have to take extra precautions to protect the scene for others who need to examine the scene,” Wilson said.

Ice still coats the scene of a 4 p.m. Thursday (Jan. 15) fire along North Main Street in downtown Austin in the 400-block.

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At least six buildings were damaged in the blaze.

Austin firefighters were assisted by volunteer firefighters from Blooming Prairie, Rose Creek and Brownsdale.

Firefighters battled sub-zero temperatures throughout Thursday evening to bring it under control.

Because of concerns the fire could flare up in near century-old buildings, firefighters remained on the scene until Friday evening the following day.

Tonight (Monday), the State Fire Marshall’s office investigators, AFD representatives and private investors (insurance claims adjusters) will meet to prepare a plan for the on-site investigation scheduled to begin Tuesday.

“We will use technical specialists, heavy equipment and demolition personnel in preparing how we can investigate the scene,” Wilson said.

Wilson squelched rumors of possible arson involved in the blaze with an emphatic “No.” He said, “All we’re trying to do now is determine how it happened. It’s a ‘cause and origin’ type investigation at this time.”

A warm-up in temperatures will help by melting the ice, inches thick, on the fire scene’s debris, the Fire Chief said. Also, plans call for using a back hoe to push through the debris to get at the interior of the buildings.

The fire is believed to have started in one of the buildings, the Mi Tierra Restaurant, a grocery store and a clothing shop, at the south end of the 400-block on the east side of the street.

No injuries from any occupants, store personnel or customers were reported.

Neither did any of the fire departments suffer injuries to their personnel or Austin Utilities workers who were called to the scene to shut off gas and electricity.

Also assisting the investigation is the number of photographs and video, being supplied by media who covered the blaze and civilians.

“We appreciate all of them,” Wilson said. “It will help our investigation.”

The Ace Hotel in 1979 claimed four lives and occurred under similar conditions — a sub-zero night, during January — as the latest fire. Wilson was an ambulance service emergency medical condition when the Ace Hotel tragedy occurred 30 years ago.

The Ellis Middle School fire in 1986 resulted in a property loss estimated at $13-million.

Wilson called the downtown fire’s loss “devastating.”

“Despite the fact, there were no losses of life or injuries, this fire loss is devastating,” he said. “I’m just thankful we were able to limit the losses on Main Street.”

There were 27 Austin firefighters at the scene and 48 from the Brownsdale, Rose Creek and Blooming Prairie fire departments.

According to the Fire Chief, an Albert Lea Fire Department engine en route to the scene with five more firefighters “froze up” on Interstate 90 and was relegated to the Austin Fire Station to “warm-up,” while the fire roared downtown.

The Fire Chief credited Lee Hansen with assisting the firefighters’ efforts.

“Lee operated the back hoe that knocked a hole in the buildings which allowed us to direct water into the fire,” Wilson said. “He drove that back hoe in 20-degree below zero temperature and did a great job.”

“This was a defensive fire,” Wilson said. “After I went through the grocery store and restaurant and checked out the basements, I made that call. It was to be defensive only. We weren’t going into the buildings.”

No dollar estimate of the damages has yet been announced.