Alexandria Fire Chief Jeff Karrow got the page at 4:34 a.m.
After arriving at the corner of Broadway and Fifth Avenue to assess the scene, Karrow immediately knew he had to call in the State Fire Duty Officer because the fire was going to be big, and it was going to be bad.
The blaze ended up tearing through four buildings on the 500 block of Broadway, in the heart of downtown Alexandria. About 20 residents were displaced and the community lost six businesses — Raapers Eatery and Ale, RM Tattoo, Charlie’s Bazaar, Little Darlings Children’s Boutique, Hidden Treasures Collectibles and Comics, and Achieve Wellness Chiropractic Center.
Early on that morning, Tuesday, Feb. 25, Karrow also summoned the State Fire Marshal and State Fire Investigator.
The investigation is continuing and as of Wednesday evening, Karrow said a cause has yet to be determined. He said because of the destruction, a cause could possibly not ever be known.
The fire was originally believed to have originated in or near the Raapers building, but Karrow said at this time he cannot say for sure where it actually started. It will hopefully be figured out after the investigations are done.
The State Fire Marshal is the one who will make the determinations, said Karrow.
Mutual aid needed
Within a short period of time that morning, Karrow knew the Alexandria Fire Department would need assistance and more resources. Through mutual aid agreements and lists of resources of area fire departments, Karrow called in five other departments – Carlos, Osakis, Forada, Garfield and Long Prairie.
For Douglas County, Alexandria Fire Department is the only department with an aerial (ladder) truck. Long Prairie was called due to that department having an aerial truck, he said.
More than 100 firefighters battled the blaze for nearly 12 hours on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Broadway. And there were Alexandria police officers and city workers, Douglas County Sheriff’s deputy and posse members, and numerous first responders and medical personnel on scene, as well.
No injuries were reported.
However, while fighting the blaze, Alexandria’s ladder truck lost all controls from inside the bucket. Karrow said control was gained through an override on the truck itself. When that happened, he immediately called the mechanics. They were on scene within no time and got the bucket controls up and running again.
“We didn’t miss a beat,” said Karrow. “We just had to use plan B, the override controls.”
Although it was hard for him to explain, Karrow said it was amazing to watch everyone come together.
“There was such a connection with all the departments,” he said. “There were good conversations. It was these guys doing this while those guys were doing that. It was a team effort and just unexplainable to watch.”
Help was bountiful
The impact of the devastating tragedy was widespread, although the aftermath is yet to be exactly known. The news of the fire flew through media outlets and social media and the community was there to help.
Roers Family Bakery, Traveler's Inn and Common Ground were supplying firefighters with food and beverages early in the day, and others joined the effort, including Garden Bar, Qdoba Mexican Grill, Domino's Pizza and others.
Emergency personnel were not the only ones being taken care of.
The apartment buildings above the burning businesses had been evacuated, displacing residents who lived there. They were taken to the Alexandria Fire Station where the Red Cross and several volunteers assisted them.
Although the city of Alexandria is grateful for the community support for the displaced residents and the business owners, at this time their immediate needs are being met, according to Sara Stadtherr, the city's communications coordinator.
Many individuals have asked what they can do to help the displaced residents but at the moment there is no system set up to collect items, Stadtherr said. The Red Cross, however, is accepting cash donations.
More than 32 hours after the fire broke out, a three-block portion of Broadway (Highway 29) was reopened to traffic in both directions.
However, motorists traveling southbound will encounter lane closures from Fourth Avenue to Sixth Avenue, as cleanup from the fire continues, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Delays and congestion are expected, MnDOT added.
“The city of Alexandria is still reeling in the aftermath of the fire,” Stadtherr said Wednesday. “Crews have maintained an overnight watch on the scene and assessment is being done now concerning all public safety elements.”
While the structures are being examined, the city asks the public to use only the sidewalks that are open and stay clear from the area unless visiting a business in the vicinity.
The west parking lot between Fillmore and Broadway is also open from Cowing Robards and to the north.
Backhoes were used to demolish parts of buildings that were too fire damaged to save and to keep the fire from spreading to other businesses. Materials from the burned buildings are being hauled to the Douglas County Demolition and Landfill near Carlos. Once they are cleared to be disposed of, the materials will be transferred to a lined landfill.
Legislators give thanks
On Wednesday, Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, commented that news of the fire spread throughout the Capitol and was on the minds of many.
“Thanks to the tireless efforts of our firefighters and first responders, no one was injured, and we’re all so thankful for that,” Westrom said in a statement. “A big thanks also to all the people, organizations, churches and others that have stepped up to help out a friend or neighbor! No doubt the fire has caused a great loss for the small businesses, tenants, and so many in the city. It has impacted personal lives, families, and employment. In the spirit of selflessness, the community has once again rallied together, providing support for the firefighters, displaced citizens, and others affected. I’m proud to represent part of a city that has such resolve and kindheartedness in the face of a disaster like this. Please continue to keep everyone affected in your thoughts and prayers that their needs will be met in the days ahead!”
Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, released the following statement regarding the fire:
“I thank God that there were no injuries, but as a community we are devastated by the loss of these businesses, these homes, and these pieces of our history,” said Franson. “I want to thank our first responders and the many volunteer firefighters that have been fighting this fire all day. They are truly heroes. Our community is strong, and we will come together to help those who have been impacted.”
State Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, also issued a statement:
“Today, the community of Alexandria experienced a devastating fire that has resulted in the loss of businesses, homes, and parts of our city’s cherished history,” he said. “While we mourn these losses, I thank god knowing that nobody was killed in this tragedy. I want to extend a thank you to the first responders for their quick and tireless work and will keep them in my thoughts as they continue to bring the fire under control.”
Ingebrigtsen added, “This is a difficult time for everyone in Alexandria but more so for families and businesses impacted by this fire. I want to thank everyone in the community for already rallying around these folks, and offering their support. While we grieve for this loss, it is without a doubt that Alexandria will rise above this.”
The Echo Press will have updates on its website, echopress.com, and in next week’s papers.