Four Fire Departments Fight to Control Quarter-Million Dollar Fire at Portage, Wis.

THIRTY-SEVEN persons occupying 25 apartments in the Porter block, 311-317 De Witt St., Portage, Wis., escaped or were rescued at midnight April 14, as flames ate their way through 18 of the units on the second floor and three store buildings below them causing damage totalling $250,000.

Four departments battled the flames all night long in freezing temperature and were credited with saving a number of adjoining properties which for more than two hours were feared doomed to destruction.

The fire was discovered shortly before midnight by the occupant of a restaurant across the street from the store where the blaze originated. Firemen, of Portage department, under the direction of Chief Arnold Rueckert, fought to confine the blaze while combing the smoke choked structure for possible victims.

Some occupants of apartments on the street side were brought down ladders by firemen, although most of the tenants escaped on their own with some assistance from their neighbors or citizens who aided fire fighters. There was no panic and evacuation proceeded in orderly fashion. One elderly woman was found lying on the floor lost in the smoke and was removed by Capt. Ralph Nehls assisted by Ben Tietz, a janitor.

Praise for the splendid conduct of the tenants of the apartments was given by Mr. and Mrs. J. B. Gay who operate the properties for the A. A. Porter estate.

Flames were first centered in the rear of the Ace Hardware store, at 313 De Witt St., and were fought from both front and rear. It was estimated that the fire had a two hour start before discovery. This, plus the fact that all occupancies on the first floor had metal ceiling, and metal roofing was used on the structures throughout, made the task of fire fighting doubly difficult.

Soon after the initial alarm, additional fire companies were summoned from cities of Baraboo and Wisconsin Dells, each 18 miles away, and from Pardeeville which is nine miles distant.

Fire raced through hidden spaces under the metal roof above the metal ceiling. So rapid was its progress that much lath was not burned but the studding was scorched by the upward surge of the flames which finally broke through the roof in a towering blast which threatened to envelop the entire block.

A deck pipe stream, which at first was ineffective because of its inability to reach the concealed fire, was moved to where it could hold flames from spreading across a narrow alley to the Portage Daily Register plant and where it could also operate more directly upon the mounting volume of fire. A deluge gun was used in the rear to knock down flames that scorched an adjoining dwelling and a large apartment house. At this point a spectacular stop was made by concentration of streams.

As neighboring departments arrived, roof lines were brought into play over the newspaper plant and operated successfully. Ten lines in all were used to subdue the blaze.

Occupying the same building as the Ace Hardware was the district office and showrooms of the Wisconsin Power & Light Co., which suffered heavily. To the north of the hardware was located the Portage Home Appliance Co. A fire door on the second floor separating these structures closed, but firemen found themselves unable to halt the march of the flames, which appeared to have extended around the fire wall. At this point grave concern was felt for the remaining Bohm hood Market and offices and apartments on the second floor to the north. However two more fire doors fulfilled their purpose at this juncture and fireman breathed easier.

Front View of Porter Block Following the Fire. Three of the Four Stores Shown Were Practically Total Losses, Only the Walls RemainingAfter the Fire: Nothing Left of II Apartments and Three Stores. Fire Spread Through Wall Opening Between Metal Ceiling and Metal Roof of One-Story Section at Rear, Circumventing Fire Door. Wrecking and Salvage, Because of the Nearness of Other Properties end Public Thoroughfares, Was a Laborious and Costly Operation

Examination of the walls between the Ace Hardware and the Portage Home Appliance disclosed why the fire was able to circumvent the “fire wall.” Hidden by metal ceiling was the work of some careless plumber some years belore, who evidently failed to patch up the wall following the installation of a pipe line between the buildings. Fire inspections could not reveal what was hidden from view, but the firemen who viewed the ruin will not soon forget, nor will the property owners, the cost of one unplugged opening.

Older residents of the city remember a similarly destructive fire which destroyed property on the same site Feb. 7. 1915. The only pumper available for that early blaze was a Silsby steamer.

As soon as it was apparent that the Porter structures were to be either destroyed or rendered uninhabitable, the local Red Cross chapter set up emergence relief facilities and canteen service. B mid-afternoon all persons left homeless were housed, at least temporarily; all residents of the buildings involved were registered and accounted for and relatives and friends advised concerning the whereabouts of persons affected by the fire.

Portage and Pardeeville firemen had jointly battled a $1(X),(XX) fire only two nights before in the latter village where the high school was destroyed. Shortage of water and delayed discovery contributed to the total loss. Chief Orris O. Smith, of Pardeeville, was not long in returning Chief Rueckert’s visit.

The last extra alarm fire in Portage occurred July 30, 1947, at the Kroger Co. supermarket.

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