Snow will Impact Determination of Cause of Fire at Edwardsville (IL) Lumber Yard

Firefighters on a hoseline

Teri Maddox

Belleville News-Democrat

(MCT)

Feb. 16—Edwardsville Fire Department started its investigation Tuesday into a fire that destroyed an R.P. Lumber Co.out building, damaged three homes and caused a widespread power outage in the middle of a frigid winter storm.

Snow fell all day Monday and into Tuesday morning as firefighters worked to extinguish the blaze. The National Weather Serviceis predicting more accumulation on Wednesday and Thursday.

“That makes it harder (to determine a cause),” EdwardsvilleFire Chief James Whitefordsaid. “An investigation is looking for clues, and when you can’t see them because they’re covered up with snow, that makes it more difficult.”

The wooden outbuilding along East Schwarz Streetwas used to store windows, doors, kitchen cabinets, mouldings and other millwork, according to company owner Bob Plummer. He didn’t put a dollar amount on the loss but called it “significant.”

Plummer praised firefighters for working in cold, miserable weather and keeping the fire from spreading to other structures. He thanked employees for quickly moving vehicles and equipment.

“We lost a couple of vehicles, unfortunately, and we lost a forklift,” Plummer said. “But nobody got injured. Nobody got harmed.”

The R.P. Lumberstore is at 514 E. Vandalia St., across the lumber yard from the millwork storage building.

Firefighters worked 13 hours

Firefighters from Edwardsvilleand a half-dozen surrounding communities responded to the fire at 12:26 p.m. Mondayand didn’t finish putting it out until about 1:30 a.m. Tuesday, some 13 hours later.

“There was a natural-gas line that fed into the building, and it burned through during the fire,” Whiteford said. “So we had a natural-gas-fed fire burning in the center of the building, and we called Amerento the scene to shut it off, and they had difficulties with machinery and equipment because cold temperatures were causing things to not work properly.”

Firefighters had to pause for a few hours while waiting for the situation to become safe.

“The real issue with a gas-fed fire like that is … We could spray enough water on it to put it out, but then you have gas dumping into the air looking for a place to ignite,” Whiteford said. “So it’s safer to actually let it burn until you can control it.”

One non-firefighter who suffered minor smoke inhalation was treated and released at the hospital, according to Whiteford.

The fire destroyed the millwork building and “blistered” a couple other structures, Plummer said. It also damaged three homes across East Schwarz.

“One of the bigger problems we had yesterday (was) the wind,” Whiteford said. “We had sustained winds of 15 to 20 miles per hour with gusts of almost 30. That was creating a wind-driven fire, which was blowing the flames all the way across the street into three different houses that were close to this building.

“It melted the siding and broke some windows on the three houses there, but we were able to keep them from catching fire.”

Electricity restored gradually

About 1,300 Edwardsvilleresidents lost power around 12:45 p.m. Mondaydue to the fire burning a power line and causing it to fall, according to Ameren Illinoisspokesman Brian Bretsch. Electricity was restored gradually during the afternoon.

“We were bringing up what I call ‘small pockets’ of customers, and the reason we were doing that is we didn’t want to overload the system and cause other issues because of it being so cold,” Bretsch said. “If we would have tried to get all 1,300 customers back on at the same time, you can just imagine all the furnaces trying to kick on.”

All residents had electricity by 5:30 p.m. Monday, Bretsch said. Gas was turned off only to R.P. Lumber, so it didn’t affect gas furnaces, stoves or hot-water heaters in homes, contrary to initial reports.

Because of the power outage, which did affect electric furnaces, the city of Edwardsvilleopened two temporary warming centers, one at the Wildey Theatreand one at Edwardsville YMCA’sMeyer Center, in addition to regular locations.

A winter storm has gripped much of the United Statesin the past week. It dumped 6 to 10 inches of snow in metro-east communities on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday with temperatures in the single digits and teens. The National Weather Serviceis predicting a 60% chance of snow on Wednesday and 20% on Thursday for the Edwardsvillearea.

Plummer, 70, of Edwardsville, has been in business 44 years. R.P. Lumberoperates more than 70 locations, mostly in Missouriand Illinoisbut also in Iowaand Wyoming.

Plummer has dealt with a fire only once before, when an R.P. warehouse in Stauntonwas destroyed due to the wind picking up leaves that a neighbor was burning. Plummer watched the Edwardsvilleblaze Monday with his wife and three children.

“It was very, very shocking,” he said Tuesday. “I didn’t get much sleep last night.”

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