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NLFD battles wind-driven house fire

One miserable day
An etched stone welcomes visitors to what was once Martha Liddell’s residence. Despite the efforts of multiple fire departments, a wind-driven blaze destroyed the home and killed two dogs on the 2800-block of 270th Street NW on Wednesday, Dec. 13. Community members can support Liddell through a fund set up by Hills Bank & Trust, by visiting any of its locations. (photo by Cale Stelken)

NORTH LIBERTY– North Liberty Fire Chief Brian Platz was stunned.
“In 25 years in the fire service, I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said.
Platz was reacting to a wind-driven blaze that completely destroyed a house in the 2800-block of 270th Street NW on Wednesday, Dec. 13.
The alarm was sounded shortly before 10 a.m. as a report of smoke coming from a residence at 2855 270th Street NW. The North Liberty Fire Department’s (NLFD) response was immediate.
“There was actually three of us at the station,” Chief Platz said. “So the three of us jump in the pumper and were right out the door. A couple more (firefighters) came in right behind us and were able to bring the tanker-pumper right behind us.”
En route to the scene, a dispatcher with the Joint Emergency Communications Center advised multiple calls were coming in about the fire. Knowing that meant a actively burning fire, Platz called for a second alarm, bringing additional equipment and manpower from surrounding fire departments.
“I knew, the time of day (few firefighters available), it’s out in the country (no fire hydrants) so we’re gonna need water,” he said. “So, if it was going to be an actual fire, we needed people coming.”
The fact it was a daytime fire only added to the challenge.
“We have the least amount of help during the day when so many are at their jobs, so being a volunteer force, it’s difficult to muster not only a lot of people, but also a quick response.”
NLFD’s first engine arrived within 10 minutes, which is the established goal.
On arrival, they saw heavy fire on the second floor of the house with partial collapse of the roof. A quick, aggressive attack ensued, Platz said. “Our thought initially was to hit it really hard from the outside with a 2-1/2 inch (diameter) hose line, get a good knock-down on it, and then take a 1-3/4 inch line in through the front door, go up the steps and mop up.”
Thirty-five-to-40 mph winds foiled that plan, however.
“There wasn’t a lot of water penetration into the building,” Platz said. “The wind was taking a lot of our hose stream and just blowing it away. It was very difficult to even get water into the structure.”
The house sat on a knoll with nothing to block the wind. “We were faced with a very difficult situation to begin with,” he said.
To make matters worse, the fire was on the windward side, meaning the howling winds were pushing the fire through the house like a blast furnace.
“We really didn’t have a chance,” Platz noted.
Within the few minutes it took to make the initial outside attack and pull the smaller hose to the front door along with donning their air masks, the fire consumed the second floor and entryway, making it too dangerous for the firefighters to even attempt to make entry.
“It was just not a safe environment to put people in,” Platz said. “Mother Nature did not do us any favors.”
Also on arrival, the firefighters learned there were pets inside the house.
“We tried to go around through the garage and opened the door from the garage into the kitchen and hopefully at least create an escape path for them,” the chief said, indicating this was even before pulling hose off the pumper. “Chief (Bryan) Hardin was pulling the hand line (hose), I went in the garage and opened that door to try and get those pets out.”
The conditions he encountered, however, told a grim story.
“It was black smoke from floor to ceiling already, on the first floor. And there was definitely enough heat coming out of that door that I knew, sadly, that there was no survivability, even before we got there.”
That realization made a sad situation even tougher. “When you’re faced with pets inside and a fire condition, and wanting to be successful on both sides (rescuing the pets and saving the house) of that equation… and we weren’t successful on either. We just didn’t have a lot going for us, unfortunately.”
Even with multiple hose lines flowing water and a third-alarm (called for shortly after arriving on-scene) bringing additional water via tanker trucks setting up a shuttle operation, the wind-driven flames proved too great of a challenge.
The wind carried embers into an adjacent cornfield and set the corn stubble on fire.
“So, we had a cornfield going, as well. Tiffin had their grassfire truck there, which was a Godsend, so they were able to take care of that quickly for us, but the one thing we really needed was an aerial device (ladder truck), so it wasn’t too long into the incident I called for Iowa City’s 75-foot ladder truck out of their Station 2.”
Initially, the NLFD didn’t have enough personnel to bring their 75’ ladder truck, but it was staffed and responded shortly after the call for Iowa City’s truck and arrived a few minutes after Iowa City. Even the powerful stream shooting down into the house from the ladder was not immune to the force of the wind.
“They were able to get about two-thirds of the fire knocked down, but the wind would just take their stream when they tried to hit the far-east end.” The ladder did as much as it could, he said. “And we did the rest with hand lines and an excavator (provided by a neighbor).”
Chief Platz spoke briefly with the homeowner while Chief Hardin consulted with the State Fire Marshal’s office about the impact tearing down part of the structure would have on the fire investigation.
“Unfortunately, the amount of damage that had occurred so quickly in the area of origin, there wasn’t going to be anything to investigate,” Platz said. With the homeowner’s permission, the excavator was used to pluck off some portions of the house that were precariously hanging and preventing safe access for the firefighters. With the immediate hazards removed, the firefighters were able to make entry and attempt to locate the pets. They were never found. After an hour of searching and hitting hot spots, the excavator was brought back in to take down some walls to allow for complete extinguishment.
“It was just a miserable day,” Platz said, adding seeing the look on the homeowner’s face when she realized she’d lost not only her house but also her dogs added to the physical and mental toll on the crews.
“Everybody stepped up to the plate, we called a lot of mutual aid departments (Coralville, Tiffin, Oxford, Swisher, Hills, Iowa City, Solon and West Branch). They all came, brought their equipment, brought their people, and many of them were willing to stay to the bitter end so I can’t say enough about the mutual aid partners.” Part of the mutual aid effort included an Iowa City Engine Company relocating to North Liberty’s station to backfill. The Iowa City crew responded to two emergency medical calls in North Liberty while the NLFD was tied up on the house fire, Platz said. Once back in-quarters, the NLFD responded to three calls of their own including two minor car accidents for a total of seven runs on the day for the volunteers.
Hills Bank & Trust has set up a fund to help Martha Liddell, the homeowner, at all of its locations.