LA CROSSE, Wisconsin (WXOW) – One year ago, on July 30, 2011, are firefighters banded together to combat a blaze they said could have leveled an entire downtown block.
The La Crosse Fire Department was notified of the call around 9:30 am – when they received word that a small, storage building located behind the Optical Fashions building on Jay Street between 4th and 5th had caught fire.
The flames quickly spread from the former to the latter.
"Optical Fashions had had some remodeling done, so there were numerous roofs that had been placed one on top of the other," said La Crosse Assistant Fire Chief Warren Thomas.
"I think we counted a total of four. So there were these hidden spaces where the fire could get in to and travel through to other spaces in the building, and those were located in between those roofs and in the walls," Thomas added.
"Once we found out we had a fire that had expanded from its room of origin, we knew we were going to need more help," said Division Chief Jeff Murphy.
Murphy and the La Crosse Department called the Onalaska Fire Department for help.
Onalaska Lieutenant Corey Yonkovich said he and four of his men were on the scene within 10 minutes.
Yonkovich added, when they arrived and began working under La Crosse's command, they were sent right into the heart of the action.
"They assigned us to go up on the roof of the Optical Fashions Building to cut some vent holes," Yonkovich said.
"By going up on the roof and doing that, you give the heat a place to escape," he added.
"Being up there, you could really size up how big of a scene La Crosse was working on," said Onalaska Firefighter Andrew Barnhardt.
"I didn't know what I was getting into at the moment, but I just knew I had a job to do," he said. "Your training just kind of kicks in."
But Thomas said it soon became clear the two buildings couldn't be saved.
"When your guys are in there battling and they see the fire advancing around them, in front of them, above them and even back behind them, then we make the decision to get everybody out of the building and go defensive," Thomas said.
"Basically we were just squirting water on the fire to contain it from spreading, because all those buildings were so close together," said Yonkovich.
Yonkovich added Onalaska's fire crew left at roughly 7 pm that evening – when their truck had all but run out of fuel.
La Crosse Firefighters stayed on-scene into the night.
Both buildings were knocked down, and then the rubble was searched for hot spots.
But both departments added the grueling day taught them a thing or two.
"When you have that many firefighters on the scene, you have to make sure you can communicate with everybody and make sure they're all safe," Murphy said.
"So we found out we need to use multiple methods of communicating, and communicate at multiple channels," he said.
"I think we learned both communities work very well together," Yonkovich said. "It shows we have resources available to any department in the area. If they call, we'll go and assist them."
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