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House in River Falls a ‘total loss’ after fire

February 11, 2019

Early morning on Saturday, January 26th, River Falls firefighters braved the piercingly cold temperatures to extinguish two house fires at 222 E. Walnut St. and 209 S. Third St.  

At 1 a.m., the River Falls Fire Department was dispatched to a structure fire near Jacob’s Ladder Preschool, an Ezekiel Lutheran Church affiliate.

The flames could be seen from several blocks away, and, according to a news release from the City of River Falls, “[C]rews were met with heavy smoke and flames and battled the blaze in sub-zero temperatures.” According to Mike Moody, Assistant Fire Chief at River Falls City Fire Department, the weather conditions “definitely” had an effect. “The sub-zero temps caused some equipment problems, as well as being hard on firefighters,” Moody said.

Both properties are owned by Ezekiel Lutheran Church. 222 E. Walnut St. is recognized by the Wisconsin Historical Society as it was built in 1885.  

The main causes of structure fires in older homes such as 222 Walnut St., as stated by Moody, are electrical wiring and old fireplace chimneys. However, the home’s older building materials may have saved the house from worse damage. “If this had been a newer home with ‘lightweight’ construction, it likely would have burned to the ground,” Moody explained.

222 E. Walnut Street retained the most damage, and although no damage estimate has been made available, Moody revealed “The assessed the value of the house at $157,000, and it will be a total loss.” The exact cause of the fire, Moody said, is still undetermined, although a news release from the City of River Falls stated that “The fire is suspected to have started in the porch area.”

According to the news release, “The fire was under control in about 45 minutes,” but crews were onsite for another four hours, putting out spot fires caused by sparks and embers emitted from the main fire. “This one took longer because it got into the attic and we were not able to use the second floor to get at the attic,” Moody said.

The neighboring home at 209 S. Third Street fared better, with exterior damage on one side and smoke damage within, caused by proximity to the flames from the original structure.

No first responders were harmed, but there were two cats lost in the fire and two residents were transported to the hospital for treatment. According to Ezekiel Lutheran Church’s Business Administrator Paul Moe, “One girl suffered minor burns on her foot. [. . .] There had been five residents living in this house, but only three were home during the fire.” Moe commented that everyone has found other places to live, most with friends or family. The Red Cross assisted one tenant with getting a motel room.

Heather Sperl, a friend of one of the residents at 222 E. Walnut St., revealed that residents had to run through the flames during the evacuation process. “I couldn’t believe that this happened,” Sperl said. “I couldn’t imagine having to watch all of my stuff burn to the ground. The one house was a total loss, and in the second house, one bedroom was gone and the house was condemned.  Two people losing their animals broke my heart.”

In response, the city has rallied around the displaced residents. Sperl has joined forces with the manager of Junior’s Restaurant & Tap House downtown River Falls to host a fundraiser for those affected by the fire.

“The fundraiser is March 8. We are doing a silent auction. [. . .] Also, an account has been opened at First National Bank. I would love donations for the silent auction, I would need the amount that the donation is, gift baskets would be appreciated.” Some of the proceeds from the night will be donated by Junior’s Restaurant & Tap House to help the fire victims.

Moody had a piece of advice for homeowners, “Not knowing what caused it makes it difficult to tell you how it could have been prevented.  But if we have another fire like this, the best thing people can do right now would be to go find a fire hydrant and dig it out so we don’t lose any time finding a hydrant and getting hoses hooked to it.”