Source: Lake Geneva Regional News

Local firefighters laud cooperation in battling Burlington fire
Ninety departments, 300 personnel respond to one of state's largest ever blazes

by Mike Ramczyk

February 07, 2013

BURLINGTON — “This will take a big toll on the community, but the people in charge are wise,” said Burlington resident Elizabeth Fait on Friday. “The community will rally around them.”

“They are a major employer and one of the biggest in town,” said Burlington city administrator Kevin Lahner Friday. “We will try to help them rebuild as best we can.”

Fait and Lahner were reflecting on the epic fire at Echo Lake Foods in Burlington last week. The fire started Wednesday night and wasn’t declared out until Thursday morning — 15 hours later. There were 300 firefighters from 90 departments needed. Two million gallons of water were used during the 9-alarm blaze. Burlington Fire Chief Dick Lodle called it the largest MABAS (Mutual Aid Box Alarm Service) response in the history of the state of Wisconsin.

Fait’s house is adjacent to Echo Lake Foods. Her husband Chris had to evacuate Wednesday night. He wasn’t allowed to return home until 9:30 a.m. Thursday morning.

Despite a few structures still standing Friday, the factory, located at 33102 S. Honey Lake Road, now features large piles of twisted metal covered with ice. Lodle said 70 percent of the 70,000-square-foot facility was still standing, but the 30 percent that burned was in the production area.

On Friday afternoon at the factory, Jesus Murillo needed a shovel to scrape off his ice-covered car, which was in the parking lot. It was covered with ice, which accumulated when the water used to fight the fire froze.

The Pell Lake resident, along with other former plant workers, finally had a chance to clean up their vehicles in the facility’s parking lot. It took Murillo at least a half hour to clear his car of all the ice.

“He was working when the fire started,” said Jesus’ wife Lourtes on Friday as she waited for her husband to finish scraping his car. “Everyone got out safe and sound. We’re so sad, it looks really bad. The most important thing is that nobody’s injured.”

Jesus Murillo is one of 300 workers who are out of a job after the devastating blaze. Racine County is organizing an event for the 300 displaced workers Wednesday, Feb. 6, at Veterans Terrace in Burlington.

Starting at around 6 p.m. Jan. 30, the fire worsened and went from a 5-alarm to a 9-alarm blaze in a couple hours. Lodle said the fire started in the building’s south end. The blaze lit up the Burlington sky overnight, and firefighters worked non-stop to control the majestic flames. Water needed to be pumped from neighboring Echo Lake to help fight the flames. Smoke could be smelled from a mile away, and sirens could be heard from even further.

Lodle called upon 90 different fire departments, including Lake Geneva, Lyons, Bloomfield, Linn, Walworth, Fontana and others from Walworth County. Firefighters came from as far as Milwaukee, Madison and Beloit to fight the epic blaze, which lasted more than 15 hours. There were no reported injuries.

“Right away, we knew we needed a lot of resources,” Lodle said. “We built a defensive perimeter. We knew it was unsafe to send firefighters into the fire.”

At least 80 people were evacuated from 10 households as a proactive measure in case ammonia or other dangerous gases reached the air, according to Lodle. He said Friday there was no ammonia emitted.

Officials with the Burlington Fire Department have not determined the cause of the fire. It is still under investigation with the help of the Wisconsin State Fire Marshall’s office and the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms bureau.

Local heroes

Lake Geneva Fire Chief Brent Connelly received a call for assistance at 6:43 p.m. Jan. 30.

Burlington requested a tower ladder and a chief, as the large flames had to be hosed from above.

“We were opposite of the main body of fire,” Connelly said Monday. “We set up a firewall between the offices and the ammonia room. There was a 8,500-gallon tank of ammonia right next to our tower. Ammonia is hazardous to breathe. We kept the fire from moving south.”

Connelly said five Lake Geneva firefighters along with himself took turns fighting the blaze. They battled the fire for about eight hours and used 250 to 300,000 gallons of water, he said. Lake Geneva personnel headed home around 4 a.m. Thursday.

Connelly, who has been a firefighter for 37 years, said the temperature, which dipped into the single digits with wind chills below zero, was the biggest concern.

“With all of the ice, we had no slips or falls,” he said. “We were very fortunate.”

With so many people fighting the fire, Connelly was impressed to see everyone coming together for the common good.

“The cooperation was outstanding,” he said. “It’s fantastic. We chose this job, and nobody calls themselves heroes. We worked together very well.”

Connelly gave thanks to the Racine Fire Bells, a group of retired firefighters and other volunteers who assist firefighters during fires.

“They provided us with coffee, hot chocolate, cookies and hand-warmers,” Connelly said.

The Burlington McDonald’s and Culvers donated hundreds of hamburgers for the firefighters. Connelly said the Fire Bells helped organize the food distribution.

Over in Lyons, Assistant Fire Chief Mike Swanson got the call to help around 6:25 p.m.

Swanson said Burlington requested two fire tankers and manpower. Swanson said seven Lyons firefighters originally left for Burlington, and eventually that number increased to 11.

The Lyons contingent manned a local city fire hydrant, which helped fill 150 tankers.

The rest of the crew was stationed at the Burlington fire department, where it assisted with office calls while Burlington personnel battled the blaze. Also, Lyons rescue personnel was at the scene.

Lyons personnel returned home at 3:30 a.m.

“When I got the call, I knew it was going to be a long night,” Swanson said. “We don’t get fires like that. Everybody came together, and we all worked for a common cause.”

Lyons personnel took to social media, as news of the fire broke on Facebook and Twitter before several Milwaukee television outlets got to the scene.

“The big one happened in the city of Burlington,” the Lyons Fire Department said on its Facebook page Jan. 30.