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No one hurt in downtown RC fire
Blaze looked nasty, but was extinguished quickly
The fire at 101 Church Street in Richland Center looked disastrous, but thanks to a quick response did little damage. - photo by R. Billingham

It is the second downtown fire in three years for Richland Center but the blaze that filled the unseasonably clear sky with a writhing plume of black smoke last Friday afternoon caused no injuries, less damage and had a more conventional cause than the 2009 fire that claimed three businesses and four apartments on E. Court Street.

According to Richland Center Fire Chief Robert Bindl, the most likely cause of last week’s fire was an electrical short in a third floor hot water furnace, though the cause was still officially under investigation at the time of the interview.

Bindl said the fire spread quickly through a hatch or “cockloft” to the roof where it ignited the roofing material, which accounted for the thick black smoke and the frightening spectacle of giant flames being stoked by easterly gusts of wind that also spread ash and debris over the rooftops of E. Court Street businesses nearby.

Despite its horrifying appearance, the fire did relatively little damage.

“There was actually very little fire damage,” Bindl said. “Most of the interior damage is from the water required to put the fire out. We were able to get at it and get water on it right away.”

Bindl estimated 20-25,000 gallons of water was used to fight the blaze.

The building has five apartments on the upper two floors and houses one of Richland Center’s most famous businesses, Papa’s Donuts, a local meeting place that was recently renovated by Scott and Kelly Coppernoll who took over the business from longtime owners Larry and Doreen Komarek in March of 2009. Papa’s was closed when the fire started.

All residential tenants escaped the fire unharmed though at least two tenants claimed they did not hear any fire alarm. Instead, they first smelled and then saw the smoke.

Building resident Christopher Cudney, 22, said he smelled smoke, but didn’t think much of it until 20 minutes later when his girlfriend Kelsey Counts, 19, saw what she first thought was a dark storm cloud but soon realized was smoke billowing from the building itself.

“I went outside into the hall and saw the storage closet on fire,” Cudney said. He then tried to alert his neighbors, as did other tenants, and finally exited the building with Counts and his neighbors via the main stairway.

At 4:36 p.m, the Richland Center Fire Department responded to a 911 call apparently from a passer-by that observed smoke emanating from the top of the building. The building is only a block away from the fire station and crews responded immediately. The RCFD set up their ladder truck aerial and two firefighters engaged the fire from a bucket, which allowed them to douse the flames from above. Once the water hit the roof the effect was nearly immediate; black smoke turned to white steam in under 30 seconds.

As soon as the fire was under control crews entered the building from the ground floor to ensure the fire was out. It was only an hour or so before tenants were being escorted back in to retrieve important items from their apartments.

The fire attracted a large crowd, many of whom were taking photographs and video. The Richland Observer shot a video of the bucket crew extinguishing the fire which is available on its regional news website and the Observer’s Facebook page.

According to both the Coppernolls and building owner Jim Atkinson, the future of the building is tied up in insurance details and time constrictions.

“My desire is to restore the building and get them [the tenants] back in there as soon as possible,” Jim Atkinson, the owner of the building said.

According to Atkinson, who has owned the 100-year-old building since 1997, the timeframe for doing that is more in the hands of insurance companies than his own at the moment, but he feels if things “move along” that the building could be ready for occupancy in a month or two thanks mostly to the limited fire and structural damage. A fact he attributes to the quick, efficient work of the fire department.

“A huge pat on the back and kudos to the fire department. Being close makes a difference, too, but they did a great job,” Atkinson said. He also thanked the Red Cross and Salvation Army both of which are helping tenants find temporary lodging.

Atkinson said only about 25 percent of the roof is structurally damaged, but that the water damage is significant. He has been spending the last several days tearing out all of the drop ceilings and carpeting in the building.

“Until they find a better way to fight fire than with water, this is what will happen,” he said. “I think we can repair it and have it restored and looking better than ever.”

Scott Coppernoll, who owns and runs Papa’s Donuts with his wife Kelly was visiting family in Tomah, where is grandfather was terminally ill, when he received a call from Kelly telling him what she knew, that Papa’s Donuts was on fire.

“Well, let’s just say I made it here from Tomah in pretty good time,” Scott said.

A member of Kelly’s church called her and told her “Papa’s is on fire.” She immediately went to the site but by that time the fire department had blasted the roof with water.

It was only when she viewed the video online that she realized the scope and potential danger the blaze represented.

For now, the Coppernolls are working through a soggy, dark mess and slogging through the complexities of insurance claims and proper protocol for getting the business back in order.

“We really have no idea yet about the numbers as far as damage,” Scott said. He said that the smaller inventory type items are a total loss, but that larger items may be salvageable. The insurance company will dry out the large electrical equipment such as freezers and fryers and test them in the coming weeks.

“It is sort of like when you go to two different doctors and they each tell you something different is wrong with you,” Kelly said. “Most of our anxiety is wondering what the insurance company will offer us so we can make our plans and move forward.”

Despite the uncertain future all parties involved expressed a profound appreciation for the Richland Center Fire Department for their heroic efforts and to the Richland community for its continuous outpouring of support.

“We feel really appreciated and loved,” Kelly said.

When asked to comment on the aerial truck, Chief Bindl was quick to acknowledge it is an “awesome” piece of machinery, but he just as quickly pointed to the dedication of his crew.

“They did their jobs well, they deserve a lot of credit,” he said.

The Lone Rock Fire Department, the Explorers, city police, the Sheriff’s Department, City Utilities, We Energy, and the city’s Street Department all assisted at the scene.