Blaze Destroys Downtown Building
For 10 hours, firefighters battled a relentless blaze that destroyed a three-story downtown St. Ignace retail and apartment building Wednesday, January 6. St. Ignace firefighters rescued a woman from a second floor window. A tenant in a separate second floor apartment reported the fire and had safely escaped the building before firefighters arrived. More than 60 firefighters were on the scene, including squads from four neighboring communities who joined the St. Ignace Fire Department to prevent the fire from spreading to adjacent buildings. No one was injured.
The cause of the fire remains undetermined, although the state fire marshall, Dale Hardy of Cadillac, has said careless smoking could not be ruled out as a possible cause. The fire is believed to have started on the second floor, said St. Ignace Fire Chief John "Bucky" Robinson.
The building at 368 North State Street is next door to the Secretary of State office, which is joined by a walkway on the second floor. The upper two floors contain five apartments, one of which was occupied by a man, and the second floor of the Secretary of State building contains two apartments, one of them occupied by a woman, who was evacuated by firemen soon after they arrived and was taken to Mackinac Straits Hospital to get dry and warm.
The balloon construction of the older buildings downtown causes nightmares among firefighters.
"As soon as I heard the address on the pager, I said, This is not going to be good," recalled Chief Robinson of the 4 a.m. page.
"These old buildings, what they did, they took their stud walls right from the basement to the top floor. Where a new house is built by stories and in between there are fire stops, back in the old days, between each stud it just went from the basement right to the top. Well, those turn into chimneys. When fire gets in there, there's nothing in there to stop it and there is no way we can get at it."
“The fire got in there and that's how it got to the back of the building,” he said. “All we were doing was just chasing it.”
The building is more than 100 years old, said St. Ignace building inspector Paul Sved, who noted it was built prior to 1906.
Firefighters from Clark Township, Mackinaw City, and Brevort Township arrived with their trucks and Mackinac Island firefighters flew to St. Ignace to assist. They attacked the fire from all angles of the building with most posted at the City Hall parking lot, which offered the most exposure to the building.
A lack of wind aided firefighting efforts, although temperatures dipping to as low as 18 degrees Fahrenheit that morning created challenges. With more than 1,000 gallons of water a minute being pumped on the blaze from each of three fire trucks, spray turned to ice. Spray from the hoses landed everywhere, flooding edges of State Street and forming a thin layer of ice on every surface it touched. Many firefighters were covered in a thin, frozen coating. Visors became caked with ice. Clothing crunched as they moved about the scene.
Jim Litzner and Fred Feleppa of St. Ignace said just about anything that got wet, including hands and feet, quickly became very cold. The men were two of the 30 firefighters from the St. Ignace squad at the scene.
"You are holding a lot of weight and standing on ice, so you need to have someone to keep you from falling over," said Eric Dodson, St. Ignace city manager and a fireman.
City crews were on the scene with a load of salt, which was continuously applied to pavement around the building. Adjustments also were made at the water department, said Les Therrian, director of the Department of Public Works. Extra pumps were added to handle the increased demand for water. The city's infrastructure is designed to support the need and he estimates that an extra 250,000 to 400,000 gallons of water were used Wednesday.
The break in fighting the blaze came when the fire broke through the roof and Mackinaw City firefighters were able to use their 75- foot tall ladder truck to pour water down on top of the blaze. The St. Ignace department does not have a ladder truck and no capability to get above the blaze.
"We just help them out whichever way we can," said Mackinaw City Chief Fred Thompson, whose crew of 12 were on the scene early and also helped search the building.
"If you ever go into a smokefilled building, it's like walking with your eyes closed," he said. "That's always a challenge."
Fighting the fire at Mama Mia's Pizza in Mackinaw City in 2005 was similar to this fire, he recalled. That fire also was embedded in the interior walls.
Fire Chief Mark Peterson of Brevort Township arrived on the scene at 7 a.m. with a crew of eight.
"It was pretty bad when we got here," he said. "We're just here to support St. Ignace. When you have this long of a fire, the guys start to burn out and we're just helping to give the guys a break."
To get at the fire, the decision was made to use an excavator to remove the remaining roof and third floor. Chad Belonga of Belonga Excavating in St. Ignace operated an excavator, pulling pieces of the structure down. Firefighters were ready with hoses to extinguish fires on the fallen debris.
Ten firemen flew over from Mackinac Island in two shifts, said Fire Chief Dennis Bradley. The crew was split to ensure the Island remained covered in case a fire started there.
"You know, you come over here and you see all of the guys and departments and equipment, that's impressive," he said. "We've been working a long time on mutual aid and getting departments on the same radio frequency and it's paying off. This is the result."
The fire was extinguished by approximately 3 p.m., Chief Robinson noted.
State Street was blocked off for most of the day, from the start of the firefighting efforts until 4:50 p.m. that afternoon. Assisting with traffic flow were the police departments from St. Ignace, Mackinaw City, and the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. Michigan State Police and the Mackinac County Sheriff Office also were stationed at various intersections as traffic was rerouted through town that morning.
Red Cross volunteers Sally Hazen, Donna Goldthorpe, and Chris Grace established a canteen inside the nearby fire hall. The women offered fire crews coffee, food, and water donated by area businesses. The Red Cross also provided vouchers to the two apartment dwellers to purchase clothing.
A key factor in the success of fighting the blaze was the support from area departments, said Chief Robinson.
"They came," he said. "Didn't hesitate. No questions asked."
Just four months ago, Ernest Pincombe and his family opened Bargains by the Shore, a convenience store on the main floor of the building. Standing outside the structure Thursday, January 7, he expressed his disappointment at the loss of the business, and his uncertainty about the future.
Wednesday morning, he was waiting for his insurance adjuster to assess the damage and pondered whether he would be able to reopen. Business, he said, was better than he and his family had expected for the winter months. He said the store enjoyed support from the community.
Monday, January 11, he announced he would, indeed, be back in business, at 322 North State Street, the log cabin building owned by Tom and Yvonne Della- Moretta, formerly operated as Michigan Treasures and Cabin Fever. Mr. Pincombe said his store would be open by Saturday, January 16.
Firefighters prevented the blaze from spreading to the adjacent building that houses the Secretary of State's office, although the structure did sustain smoke and water damage.
Both buildings were insured and were purchased about a year ago by Tom Briggs of St. Ignace. Mr. Briggs said he is not sure what he will do with what remains of the burned building.
"I'm just thankful that nobody got hurt," he said of the tenants and firefighters. "That's the main thing."
For now, he said his focus is on repairing the remaining building to get the Secretary of State's office open again.
In the meantime, Secretary of State services will be available in St. Ignace from a mobile office set up next to the Big Boy restaurant on US-2. The mobile facility is a fullservice office that is accessible to people with disabilities and has been used statewide since 1997.
"The mobile branch office offers all the services of the State Street office and will help meet the needs of the community until the damages are repaired," said Terri Lynn Land, Secretary of State.
The temporary office is open Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and from 1:30 to 5 p.m. Wednesday hours are from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.