Year in Review: Fire impacts NI and Southern MN


KIMT News 3- 2016 got off to a fiery and tragic start in North Iowa and southern Minnesota.

On January 11, an explosion and fire destroyed Charlie’s Auto Repair in Mason City after a liquid propane leak ignited. Even through crews arrived within minutes, it still took them over 4 hours to extinguish the blaze.

The residents of a Charles City apartment complex were left homeless that same day when firefighters were called to 2014 Clarkview Drive. Firefighters were again on the scene for about four hours and the building sustained significant smoke, fire and water damage.
No one was harmed in either of those instances.

But that was not the case for a January 11 house fire north of Canton in Fillmore County. The bodies of a local Amish bishop and his teenage son, 58-year-old Yost Hershberger and 18-year-old Ben Hershberger, were pulled from the rubble of their home.

On January 12, flames were seen shooting out of the roof of the Sacred Heart Parish Center in Rockwell and this fire was complicated by temperatures as low as six below.
Mark Lowe, Rockwell fire chief – “Extreme temperatures are no fun to fight fire with. You’re dealing with water, everything freezes and guys are cold. Gear can only keep you warm for so long once the guys get wet, it’s miserable.”

The parish would turn to the Archdiocese of Dubuque for help rebuilding.

Father Rod Allers – “It’s been a really humbling and overwhelming experience. I’ve had a couple moments throughout the last few days where I’ve been overwhelmed by emotion. I would say that it’s more gratitude of people’s faith in people’s response and the understanding of community, than it is grief.”

An entire community was affected when flames roared through downtown Madelia on February 3, destroying several businesses in the small community southwest of Mankato. Mara Mosenden of Rochester is from Madelia and got the sad details on what was lost from her family.

“There was the Mexican restaurant which produced a lot of business, people from around Southern Minnesota would come. A hair salon, it was right next to an insurance building. Just a lot of people. The whole town is going to be affected for a long time.”

The cold remained a problem on February 9 when several departments were needed to deal with a fire at Dean’s Auto Body along Highway 9 in Cresco.

Wayne Kerian, assistant fire chief – “Obviously keeping everybody warm is a big challenge. Our feet and our hands are getting cold trying to keep our hoses from freezing and, of course, any place that we go, our breathing apparatus like to freeze over in these types of temperatures as well.”

A house fire in Mason City claimed another life on June 21. Even though the flames at 1022 East State Street had burned themselves out before firefighters could even arrive, Nancy Thompson was still dead after a kitchen fire spread smoke throughout the house.
Smoke inhalation claimed another life just a few weeks later in Franklin County. 74-year-old Delores Ann Birdsell was found dead after a house fire at 22 Southview Circle in Sheffield on July 17.

Firefighting can be a stressful and hazardous job and a new report in 2016 said that it’s still a job largely done by men. The report found fewer than 1,000 female firefighters in the entire state of Minnesota. Captain Scott Hanna with the Albert Lea Fire Department says they have had qualified applicants in the past, but currently had no female firefighters.

Scott Hanna – “More females are being educated as to what the physical demands are. I believe you see a lot more women understanding that being a female isn’t a detriment to physical challenges. It’s just a matter of how you address it.”

A hog confinement near Ventura went up in flames on October 2. Michelle Luscombe says she and her husband Brent lost about 250 sows and 2,500 piglets and were a little taken aback at the reaction of some people.

Michelle Luscombe – “I’ve just seen comments online, you know, about the people saying ‘I hope they don’t rebuild’ or whatever, but what people don’t understand, this is our livelihood. You know, we do a lot of different things, we have cattle and hogs and they feed everybody else. It’s not just for us. I mean, it’s not a lot of fun doing all of this. It’s a lot of work.”

Luscombe said it was going to take some time to return to normal.

Michelle Luscombe – “You just have to persevere with faith and family and friends and everything. We’ve been able to do that but it’s not always easy.” (October 3)
On the afternoon of November 9, the flames that ravaged B20 Auto in Clear Lake actually forced officials to close down County Road B20 for several hours. The fire at the salvage yard was apparently caused by sparks from a grinding wheel on a car.

David Jara, B20 Auto employee – “I came up and seen a guy was cutting and sparks were flying and it just caught fire and everything went up real fast. It just started up, couldn’t get it under control and everything within three minutes, the whole building was just flames and we just got everybody out and got away.”

Fortunately, no injuries were reported.

It was the threat of explosion and fire that forced the evacuation of Ellendale on November 11. Four cars of a Union Pacific train derailed and began leaking flammable gas. A no-fly zone was established over the city and emergency crews and local agencies moved to assist residents who had to flee their homes.

Melanie Tschida, American Red Cross – “We’re working closely with our partners, including Geneva United Methodist Church in Ellendale, to support those displaced from the derailment and those responding to help.”

It actually took some fire to resolve this dangerous situation, as controlled explosions were used to burn off the dangerous flammable gas that remained at the derailment site.
A fire from the past continued to make news in 2016 as there were two big developments in the 2011 arson at the Forest City Police Department. Charges against Thaddeus Ellenbecker, the former police officer accused of starting the fire, were finally dropped after important evidence against him was thrown out of court.

Joel Yunek, attorney – “What happened here is they got no other evidence, so if the only evidence is that of a confession and it gets thrown out, you can’t proceed with the case.”

It was a decision that left some very unsatisfied.

Dan Davis, former Forest City police chief – “Even though it’s obvious to everybody concerned the evidence shows that this person probably did it and is guilty, there’s a guilty person walking around. That’s just the nature of it.”

It wasn’t all good news for Ellenbecker, though, as Forest City filed a civil suit against him to pay for the damage done to the police station.
And fire claimed one more victim on December 10 when a Mason City house fire killed 3-year-old Vicente Gonzalez.

Tom Wollner, Mason City assistant fire marshal – “When we do fire prevention, the statement is we work to put fires out, we work to preserve property. But when we find out or when we hear an occupant inside or people trapped, we work a little harder, little faster.”

Officials say there were no smoke detectors in the home.
Fire played no favorites in 2016. Tune in tomorrow to find out if the legal system in North Iowan and southern Minnesota could say the same.

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