Approach on flood zone fires can differ from other areas of Cedar Rapids

Buelow: "It's not worth jeopardizing a firefighters life"

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CEDAR RAPIDS – Firefighters sometimes take a different approach when it comes to battling fires in the city’s flood zones.

Because the buildings are presumed to be unoccupied – such as the former Globe Grocery that burned to the ground Friday – work is often defensive to keep the fire from spreading to other structures, rather than entering to contain the fire, Cedar Rapids Fire Department spokesman Greg Buelow said.

“It is a little bit different, based on the circumstances,” Buelow said, noting that firefighters started with an aggressive attack Friday before walls and part of the roof collapsed. “The preference is not to get firefighters killed for a vacant house.”

Friday’s fire was believed to be the 39th blaze in areas of the city affected by the Floods of 2008. Suspects have been arrested in connection with just two of the cases – one in which a porch was set ablaze and another in which a man was accused of using a torch to steal copper.

Buelow noted that flames were already visible from the back of the former grocery store and apartment complex, at 131 14th Ave. SE, by the time firefighters arrived shortly after 1:30 a.m. Friday.

“It’s natural if they think someone’s in jeopardy, they’re going to try to help them,” Buelow said, adding that was not the case with the building, which was occupied after the flood, but vacant since it was purchased by the city. “It’s not worth jeopardizing a firefighter’s life.”

The fire department does not have a directive from the City Manager’s office or other departments for its policy, but weighs the risk in each case, he said.

Buelow noted that unlike homes that are occupied, fires in flood-damaged neighborhoods oftentimes go unnoticed until flames have spread. Such was the case Friday, he said, as boarded windows prevented anyone from seeing inside.

As early as last May, the Czech Village/New Bohemia Main Street District’s board had requested that the city secure the building, which was deemed an important structure that should be saved from demolition. Built by Wencil Martinek as a hardware store with upper-level apartments in the late 1800s, the building – used by Globe Grocery in the early 1900s - was eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

Brian Fagan, president of the Main Street board, notified city staff about concerns that doors had been kicked in and windows broken.

“Is there anything that can be done to secure the building?” he wrote in May.

Last Wednesday, the City Council's Development Committee approved allowing the building to be redeveloped, even though the site is in the construction zone for the city's new flood protection system.

John Riggs, the city’s flood recovery program manager, said he relocked the building Wednesday, after taking a developer through it.

A padlock had been broken, he noted.

“The problem is, it’s out there on its own,” Riggs said. “We can’t babysit these things 24 hours a day.”

Buildings the city has purchased are secured to prevent entry because of liability issues, he said.

Just one block away, however, gaping holes from broken windows were visible at the Cedar Rapids Tent & Awning building, 1207 Second St. SE, another city-owned building that preservationists hope to save from demolition.

Riggs said windows are boarded as the city is notified.

Fires can expedite demolition, but he said that is not the preferred route.

Friday’s fire, for example, will require expensive disposal of materials, because the building had asbestos. Most times, asbestos and other hazards are removed before demolition.

The material also will weigh more from the water used to suppress the fire, which increases disposal fees, Riggs said.

Officials have speculated that intruders have set fires to warm themselves or to cook inside the flood-damaged buildings, but Buelow said “we just don’t know.”

Friday’s fire is under investigation, but Buelow said no physical evidence was gathered because the structure was obliterated by the blaze.

That leaves it up to the public to provide information in the case, which he said was caused by a “human element” as the building had no utilities connected and there was no lightning or other natural causes.

Tipsters can be eligible for a portion of a $15,000 arson reward fund for any of the cases. Anyone with information can call the Arson Hotline and leave an anonymous tip at (800) 532-1459.


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