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January 14, 2014: A snowy, windy morning

By LeAnn R. Ralph

GLENWOOD CITY  —  January 14, 2014, at 5 a.m. was a snowy morning with five to eight inches of wet snow blowing around in a strong wind.

Unbeknownst to neighbors of the Glenhaven nursing home, residents of Glenhaven and night-shift staff, there was a fire.

A large fire.

 A fire that had started sometime during the night at the construction site of a new section of Glenhaven that would be called Glenhaven Long Term Care and Rehabilitation.

The fire had completely destroyed Building D and Building E and was working on destroying Building B and Building C by the time firefighters arrived.

According to the fire chief’s report, the Glenwood City Fire Department was called to a structure fire that morning at 5:06 a.m. at 612 East Oak Street.

David Prissel, nursing home administrator, says he had received a telephone call at 5:05 a.m. that morning by a staff member to alert him about the fire.

When the Glenwood City Fire Department arrived on the scene a great while later, Building D and Building F were already burned to the ground, and the fire was in Building B and Building C of the new addition, according to the fire chief’s report.

Neighbors who live near Glenhaven were not aware of the fire that had started sometime during the night, and apparently no one drove past two blocks away on Maple Street/state Highway 170 or streets near the nursing home and noticed the fire.

An employee out in the parking lot shoveling snow apparently did not notice the fire as well.

The Glenwood City Tribune Press Reporter in a story published the following week indicated that while the fire was called in at around 5 a.m. that Tuesday morning, “a video camera at the construction site showed that the fire may have been burning for several hours before it was noticed. A Glenhaven employee that was coming in for her early-morning shift noticed the flames on the south households and 9-1-1 was notified. The county dispatcher paged out the Glenwood City Fire and Ambulance at 5:04 a.m. and then paged the United Fire out of Woodville, Baldwin and Hammond as well as Boyceville for Mutual Aid to assist. It was followed shortly by the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System (MABAS) which activated more fire departments.”

In the end, more than 200 firefighters and other personnel from about 40 agencies responded to the Glenhaven fire.

When the Glenwood City Fire Department arrived, fire was coming from the roof area of the buildings that were still standing.

Buildings D and E, which were already burned to the ground, had all of the plumbing, electrical and Heating-Ventilation-and-Air Conditioning (HVAC) work completed, and the construction company had planned to begin installing Sheetrock later that day, Prissel said.

Buildings B and C were farther along in their construction. The painting had been completed, and construction crews were working on hanging lighting and the grid for the ceilings, he said.

Nursing home residents

Since the new construction was next door to the existing 44-bed Glenhaven facility, what about the residents of the nursing home?

Not long after the Glenwood City Fire Department arrived, Fire Chief Holden reported that St. Croix County Sheriff’s Department deputies, along with nursing home staff, moved the residents to a safe location within the nursing home to “shelter them in place.”

At 8:15 a.m., the chief of the Baldwin EMS service had requested a transport bus from Minnesota to move residents out of the adjoining nursing home. The bus could transport 30 residents, and Baldwin EMS would pay for the bus if necessary.

As it turned out, at 8:25 a.m., it was confirmed that the bus was not needed, according to the Glenwood City fire chief’s report.

In addition to being able to provide shelter for the residents, Glenhaven also served as a “rehabilitation area” for firefighting crews.

“We had a rehab area set up in the lobby of Building A. We switched out crews every hour so the firefighters could go in and get warm and have something to eat. This continued through the duration of the fire,” Chief Holden wrote in his report.

Water

All together, nearly 600,000 gallons of water were used to fight the Glenhaven fire. Out of the total 360,000 came from Glenwood City’s municipal water system, and 227,050 gallons were hauled from a creek about a mile away and from the Village of Boyceville.

With that much water being used to fight the fire, it comes as no surprise that water began leaking into Glenhaven’s basement.

To keep the water from causing damage to the existing nursing home, a crew was assigned to the basement.

“This crew’s job was to keep the drains open and to keep water from rising. We had a second crew on the roof of Building A to keep the fire from spreading from the other buildings. We had a crew on the main level of Building A to monitor for any smoke,” Fire Chief Holden wrote in his report.

Also as one might imagine, with that much water being pulled from the municipal system, the system sometimes had trouble keeping up.

According to the report, there were three different times the city’s water system reached a point where the hydrant operations had to be suspended.

Fire Chief Holden notes in his report that Doug Doornink, Glenwood City director of public works, called to say the water level was getting low and that portable tanks should be set up by each aerial truck and to feed the aerial trucks with a tender shuttle.

“The MABAS (Mutual Aid Box Alarm System) director  called for an additional strike team of tenders from Eau Claire County. We set up a creek pump on 320th Avenue about one mile from the scene and started hauling water from a neighboring town (Boyceville),” according to the fire chief’s report.

Mechanical problems

Fighting a large fire would never be an easy job, but the weather on the day of the Glenhaven fire made the job even more difficult.

“Weather conditions were heavy snowfall with strong winds which made travel poor,” Fire Chief Holden wrote in his report.

Because of the poor road conditions, one tender slid in the ditch, and Mike’s Auto Body was on the scene to provide wrecker assistance for the tender.

During the course of fighting the fire, one aerial ladder truck became disabled and caught on fire.

Chief Holden wrote, “I received a call from operations that the aerial located on the north side of the building had caught on fire due to engine failure, so I asked dispatch to page River Falls Fire Department for an additional aerial truck.”

“When the River Falls Fire Department arrived on the scene, the aerial truck was positioned on the north side of Building A. The aerial truck was used to extinguish flames on Building, B, D, and E. Day and Night Wrecker service was called to assist with the removal of Baldwin’s aerial,” according to the report.

The River Falls aerial ladder truck also began experiencing problems with the truck’s hydraulics.

“I contacted dispatch and asked to have them page out the Amery Fire Department (and) asked them to respond to the scene with an aerial truck. When Amery arrived on scene, they were positioned on the north side of Building A to extinguish flames from Building B, D and E,” Fire Chief Holden wrote.

Ammonia

As firefighters worked to put out the fire, firefighters working near Building C reported that they could smell ammonia.

Crew members wearing a “self-contained breathing apparatus” went into the basement and main floor of Glenhaven with gas meters, and another crew went into the basement level of Building C where there were three air conditioning condensers sitting on the floor.

The crew members reported there was a reading of no gas in Glenhaven.

The other crew members in Building C checked the condensers to see if they were emitting the ammonia odor.

One air conditioning unit may have dispersed a small amount of ammonia, the crew reported.

Fire Chief Holden noted in his report that he was in constant contact with the crews to receive updates about the monitoring of gas.

Exterior 

At one point, the fire chief walked around the structures to look at the damage to determine whether firefighters could do an interior attack of fire and hot spots.

The severity of the damage to the second floor made the walls unstable.

“At this point, I ordered all interior attacks to cease and made the decision that this fire would be fought exterior only, due to my concern for firefighter safety,” Fire Chief Holden wrote.

12 hours

At 5:05 p.m., 12 hours after the Glenwood City Fire Department arrived to start fighting the Glenhaven fire, all units were cleared from the scene.

An engine from United Fire was positioned on the south driveway to observe the buildings for any flare-ups and were also there to help the state fire marshal and the investigator from the St. Croix County Sheriff’s Department.

When investigators left after it became dark, United Fire also cleared the scene.

The Glenwood City Police Department stayed there throughout the night to watch for flare-ups and to protect the fire scene.

Although the fire at Glenhaven would ultimately delay the finish of the project by almost a year, Prissel said he was grateful that no one had been injured and was grateful to Glenwood City residents and other communities that assisted during and after the fire.

The Glenwood City Tribune Press Reporter made an Open Records request to the Wisconsin Department of Justice for the state fire marshal’s report about the Glenhaven fire, but as of press time, the DOJ had not yet provided the report.