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UPDATE: The financial impact of downtown Detroit Lakes fire ‘is going to be a huge deal,’ fire chief says. But it was just a broken window away from being a lot worse

The portion of Washington Avenue immediately in front of the mall was closed to traffic when firefighters and law enforcement officers from Detroit Lakes and Becker County arrived.

Detroit Lakes Fire Chief Ryan Swanson said a fire broke out in an upstairs apartment at 814 Washington Ave. (above Mattson’s Barbershop).

Swanson said no one was injured in the fire, which started the apartment, climbed the walls and spread to the roof space. The apartment fire was the first to be extinguished, he added. The apartment section is not connected to the shopping center, but the shopping center has suffered significant smoke damage.

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“When I got there, the fire was already climbing the wall on the inside of the building and reaching the roof area,” Swanson said in a telephone interview shortly after 5:15 p.m., when firefighters were still on the scene.

Swanson added that firefighters were able to access the apartment and fight the flames from there by using a ladder truck to access the roof, where they then cut holes through the roofing material to gain better access.

“The problem is there were two or three layers of roofing, so it took a lot to get there (the fire),” he added.

Once that roofing was punctured, the smoke became very heavy, very quickly, said Amanda Jenzen, who works at Manna Food Co-op downtown. The fire happened on the other side of Washington Avenue from Manna.

“There wasn’t much smoke right away,” she said, but firefighters chased the fire through the front door and through the roof, and “it went really fast,” she said. Thick smoke filled most of the downtown area until shortly after 5 p.m., when it was mostly gone.

Firefighters high on ladder trucks held up a steady stream of hoses and shot down onto the roofs below.

The Washington Square Mall, with several small shops and restaurants, is a mix of older buildings on Washington Avenue and new construction down the road. The fire started in one of those older downtown buildings. It’s not technically part of the mall, Swanson said.

Eventually, firefighters “broke open a window” and entered an apartment above the barbershop, and the smoke cleared shortly after, Jenzen said.

Firefighters examine smoke rising from Washington Square Mall in Detroit Lakes Friday, Sept. 10

Firefighters examine smoke rising from Washington Square Mall in Detroit Lakes Friday, Sept. 10Paul How?

Katie Poppler watched firefighters fight the blaze from her apartment across the street in Norby Flats.

The smoke was sometimes so thick you couldn’t see across the street, but most of it blew away from Norby Flats, and that wasn’t a problem for Poppler.

“The firefighters did a great job,” she says. “They called for help and got it under control.”

As for the financial impact, the downtown Detroit Lakes fire Friday will “become a major problem,” Swanson said. “We had massive smoke damage throughout the mall and water damage throughout the mall,” he said. Fortunately, he added, “we confined the fire to that one building — it didn’t spread.”

That was not certain when the fire was first reported. “I was concerned it would spread,” Swanson said. “Audubon was called up right away, and then Perham was ripened for a ladder truck even before we knew the exact location.”

The Perham and Detroit Lakes ladder trucks both fired their water cannons full at the flames for about two hours, he said. Both shoot 1,500 gallons of water per minute, “so that’s 3,000 gallons per minute for about two hours. That’s a lot of water,” he says.

It works out to about 360,000 gallons, enough to make a temporary dent in the city’s 1 million gallon water tower.

And as Swanson said, it could have been a lot worse. “We could have had a fire in the mall,” he said.
“Obviously, the shopping center borders directly on this property, in fact the (rear) windows even face the roofline of the shopping center. If those windows had been broken, the fire would have spread to the mall,” he said.

There were two apartments in the building and there was no residence in either of them at the time of the fire. No pets were lost either, he said.

Firefighters from Audubon, Callaway, Frazee, Perham and Vergas were called in to help with the Detroit Lakes fire; Detroit Lakes and Becker County law enforcement officers helped direct traffic around the block. The entire block was evacuated and firefighters tried to minimize smoke damage with fans.

By about 7:30 p.m. Friday, the fire had been out for several hours and Swanson assisted the state firefighter’s office with the investigation of the building. One of the tenants said cardboard was burned on the roof, and investigators are investigating that, as well as other possible causes of the fire.

In general, Swanson said, people should be careful about anything that could cause an uncontrollable burn.

“Be careful — one spark can set your house or something else on fire,” he said.

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