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‘I’ll remember that one’

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Above: Tim Gonzales, deputy fire chief of the Jackson Fire Department, last week described the coordinated response to a fire that consumed an industrial building on West North Street in Jackson on Aug. 22.

The massive Jackson fire required a massive, coordinated response

By Julie Riddle
Contributing writer

Coordination and cooperation meant a swift and safe response to the biggest fire Jackson’s deputy fire chief has ever seen when a historic industrial building burned last month.

Standing near the rubble of the building where long-ago workers once built parts to outfit the country’s burgeoning automobile industry, Deputy Chief Tim Gonzales of the Jackson Fire Department recounted the smoke, driving heat, and collapsing walls when the building on North Street just west of Cooper Street burned on Aug. 22.

Fire agencies far and wide sent personnel and equipment to help fight the monstrous fire that sent a column of smoke high above Jackson around noon, so thick and black it resembled a fearsome tornado. As firefighters battled the blaze from beside and above, other willing helpers, from 911 dispatchers to utility workers, pitched in at a distance, Gonzales said.

The North Street fire, with its size and intensity, put to shame even a substantial fire at a local Vernor’s packing plant a few years ago, one he thought would be the largest he would see in his career, Gonzales said.

It might not be his last big fire, though, he said. There are many Jackson structures built before current fire safety precautions, some of them in poor condition, which could mean more big fires in the future.

“Older city buildings like this, we have a lot of potential,” Gonzales said. “And that’s why we train.”

Twisted and bent metal, seen last week, bears evidence of the intense heat of a fire that burned an industrial building on West North Street in Jackson on Aug. 22.

 Gonzales knew the fire was serious as soon as he rounded the corner from Cooper onto North.

He was just heading toward his lunch break when the call came in. When he and another chief got their first glimpse of what was then caramel-colored smoke pouring from the building, they immediately called for a second alarm, requesting reinforcements.

While the chief, who had arrived ten seconds ahead of him took command of the scene, ordering arriving firefighters and equipment into position, Gonzales took on the role of safety director.

Large fires and other disasters entailing a multi-agency response require the use of an incident command system, with one person established as the point person and others, under the incident commander, taking charge of operations, logistics, staging, communications, and other vital aspects of the response.

That structured system was crucial to making the fire response “go as smoothly ― and I say smoothly in asterisks ― as it did,” Gonzales said.
At first, with smoke but no flames showing, “We thought we could go in and put the fire out,” he recounted.

Literally running in his turnout gear, Gonzales circled the building to assess the fire, quickly realizing they would need more people, more fire trucks, and more water. A third and then fourth alarm brought in more backup.

With the building so big one person couldn’t see and assess the whole thing, the incident commander established four operations, one on each side of the building, labeled Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, and Delta.

A crew of about four fighters entered the building via a loading dock on the Alpha side ― facing North Street ― and another crew prepared to enter through another doorway on the Delta side. But the speed and heat of the fire and rapid deterioration of the building doomed that effort. Within 17 minutes of arrival, those in command pulled everyone out of the building, establishing a defensive stand.

The city’s Department of Public Works had to crank up water pressure as five aerials and four pumpers blasted more than one million gallons of water from six nearby hydrants, said Gonzales, who eventually shifted to become incident commander.

Dispatchers, making phone call after phone call, coordinated calls to neighboring agencies, utility companies, city agencies, environmental agencies, and train personnel, when a nearby track had to close for several hours because a fire hose was stretched across the tracks to reach a hydrant. Meanwhile, on the scene, incident command got “really revved up,” deploying arriving crews and planning the ongoing attack.

About an hour in, a brick wall facing North Street collapsed, spilling rubble onto the street. The fire raging inside burst through the new opening.
“It was the craziest thing,” Gonzales said. “I’ll remember that one.”

Above: Tumbled brick, seen last week, remains after the collapse of a wall during a fire that burned an industrial building on West North Street in Jackson on Aug. 22.

Fortunately, the day was relatively mild, not like the next day, when Jackson’s temperatures reached the 90s. Still, firefighters reeled from the immense heat of the fire, which Gonzales compared to the rush of heat upon opening a heated oven, amplified manyfold. Realizing the fire was going to get hotter, the incident commander pulled the rigs and firefighters back.

Turnout gear, Gonzales said, keeps deadly fire and heat off of firefighters but traps heat and sweat inside, too. Four firefighters ― three from the Jackson Fire Department and one from Napoleon ― were treated for heat exhaustion and dehydration from the fire. One was transported for further care, but all were medically cleared, Gonzales said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, called within an hour of the report of the fire, sent officials to monitor air quality related to the fire, and Jackson Fire Department monitors also tracked air downwind of the fire’s black smoke. State officials had previously noted underground gasoline leakage and vapors capable of posing a health hazard at the site. Even without that concern, fire officials would have checked for dangerous chemicals in the air at a structure fire, Gonzales said.

No air quality concerns were detected at the time of the fire. State and federal officials said they will have to continue to evaluate whether the previously known hazards could pose a health threat.

The thick, black smoke produced by the fire is typical of the burning of plastics, oils, and other chemicals that can seep into wood at an industrial site, Gonzales said. (More below)

The 1900-era building once housed the Sparks-Withington Company, which produced car horns, radiators, fans, and other automobile accessories beginning in the 1920s. Those living nearby used to be accustomed to a steady stream of car horn honks as the makers tested their designs, neighbors said.

Later, the Airmaster Fan Company and other small companies conducted business in the building. Its most recent lessees moved out earlier this year because of potentially hazardous vapors detected beneath its cement floor.

When fire struck, the building burned hot and fast, thick metal beams bending and twisting in the heat. Incident commanders had no choice and “basically, in a nutshell, wrote this area off and made our stance,” Gonzales said, gesturing at the pile of rubble from the wall collapse.

Surrounding the building, firefighters focused on keeping it from spreading to an adjacent building.

They cleared the scene at 11:30 p.m., nearly 12 hours after the fire was reported. Spot fires brought firefighters back in the hours that followed, and a posted firewatch stayed on the scene overnight.

The following afternoon, fire personnel called a contractor to push in a wall near the initial collapse that had shifted toward North Street.

Many firefighters love the excitement and adrenaline rush of the chaotic environment of a big, big fire. They train daily so their instincts can override that excitement and they can get the job done, safely and effectively, Gonzales said.

He called the fire a successful operation, even though the building could not be saved. As fire personnel from every fire department in the county and from Chelsea sped to the fire to help, other outlying emergency responders moved toward the city to be close enough to respond to crashes and medical emergencies while Jackson firefighters were busy.

“It was just an outstanding effort by all the county resources we had,” he said, “to just keep it all running.”

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