Friday marks the 10th anniversary of Wauseon’s largest and most devastating fire in history, and for those who experienced it first-hand the memory of buildings and businesses in ruins remains unforgettable.
In an 18-hour period, the downtown fire burned through half a city block and caused $7.7 million in damage, despite the efforts of over 300 firefighters. The tenacious blaze eventually claimed five buildings over a century old housing six businesses and a storefront church. It was stopped from progressing further by a firewall in Hammontree’s Appliance.
By the time the blaze was extinguished, and all residual hot spots put out, the effort had required 29 fire crews from Ohio and Michigan, three million gallons of water, and the use of 24 tankers to supply a steady stream of water after the city’s reserves were tapped out. The casualties included Doc Holliday’s Restaurant, where the fire was found to have originated, Shaw’s Clothing, the Welles Bowen realty office, and Gallippo’s Photography.
It was Saturday, April 14, 2007, at approximately 2:03 a.m., when a police officer on patrol called in a smoke report in the 100 block of North Fulton Street which appeared to originate at Doc Holliday’s. Because the call apparently involved a commercial structure fire, the Wauseon Fire Department, led at the time by Chief Marv Wheeler, notified fire crews from Archbold, Delta, and Morenci, Mich., to assist.
Current Fire Chief Rick Sluder, who served then as assistant chief, said the city’s crews noticed early on the fire had progressed through the restaurant’s roof, where it fed on years of rubber and tar repairs.
“We saw pressurized smoke, and when you see that you know you’re already behind the eight ball,” Sluder said. “It was well-developed before we got there. Any time you (have fire in) those old-style buildings…it’s a very labor-intensive task on the fire department’s side.”
The firefighters originally thought the the blaze could be contained to the buildings on either side of the restaurant. However, the way in which the buildings were connected allowed flames to continue traveling through the upper ceiling areas.
It was the largest fire Sluder has yet encountered in his career. “It overwhelmed our resources immediately (but) it wasn’t out of the realm of what we knew we could do,” he said. “It just kept growing faster than what you could get resources on it. There was just not much we could do about it.”
Jerry Dehnbostel, Wauseon’s mayor from 2003-11, was rousted from bed with the news about 4 a.m., and was on the scene within about 15 minutes. Now a Florida resident, he remembers helping to salvage items from Gallippo’s before fire could claim them.
“I had no idea what the magnitude of (the fire) turned out to be. It was so surreal, you hoped it was a dream, but you knew it wasn’t,” he said.
About seven hours after they began battling the flames, the fire crews ran into what could become a serious problem: Wauseon’s water supply was tapping out.
Lou Thourot, the water plant superintendent, said the blaze took 2.2 million gallons of the city’s water at a rate of about 5,000 gallons per minute. By about 9 a.m. the entire city was depressurized.
“I was very concerned. They were taking it as fast as I was sending it,” Thourot said. “We warned the fire department all night how much water they were using and what kind of problems we’d have if they continued at that rate.”
He said once the city water towers were fairly depleted the water plant could not keep up sufficient pressure. “(But) it was a testament to their dedication to their job as well,” he said of the fire crews.
Because depressurization meant bad water could be pulled into the lines, city water customers were placed on a boil advisory that lasted for two days.
The solution to the water shortage was tapping into Delta’s, Archbold’s, and Pettisville’s supplies, as well as raw water from Wauseon’s reservoir. Twenty-eight tankers from 24 of the assisting fire departments were placed into service to keep the water flowing.
Shaw’s Clothing owner Doug Shaw was notified of the fire early but didn’t realize how serious it would become. Another fire had broken out at neighboring Doc Holliday’s recently, and Shaw thought the new fire would simply mean more smoke damage. He managed to save his business computers and book work but his entire stock of merchandise was lost.
“A half hour after I got there, I called my wife and daughter and I said, ‘Come up here, this is bad,’” Shaw recalled. “It’s been your lifelong career, and it’s sort of a sinking feeling. You’re sort of helpless.”
Of 32 sworn Wauseon police officers, Police Chief Keith Torbet used 29 on duty that day. “If the fire lasted longer I would have had to call additional manpower throughout the state,” he said.
The department’s main concern was handling traffic and security, and blocking traffic to accommodate 1.7 miles of five-inch fire hose running through the city.
Torbet said the fire was the most taxing situation he’s encountered as police chief. “This took the most manpower. It definitely tested our personnel.”
The fire was finally extinguished late Saturday, but crews stayed on the scene through the weekend to douse hot spots. Sluder spent the following week with a state fire marshal, investigating the cause of the fire’s origin at Doc Holliday’s.
On Aug. 18, 2009, the restaurant’s owner, Charles Bryan Jr., was arrested on a 14-count indictment that include nine counts of arson, three counts of aggravated arson, and two counts of insurance fraud. Following a bench trial in Fulton County Common Pleas Court, he was found not guilty on all counts.
His promise to rebuild the restaurant was never realized.
Ten years later, Sluder expressed disappointment at not being able to do more to contain the fire sooner. “You know the outcome’s inevitable, you know you’ve got to finish this, and there’s no way to win it,” he said.
He marked the fire as the biggest his department has had to fight, adding, “I hope I don’t have the opportunity to breach that mark.”
The event changed the way Wauseon police contact off-duty personnel during an emergency. The department now uses a paging system, an improvement over having a dispatcher place calls.
“Every time we have a situation, we pull something from it. We critique every large incident…just to use it as training,” Torbet said.
In the fire’s aftermath, Dehnbostel and Dennis Richardson, the city’s public service director, traveled to Columbus to secure several hundred thousand dollars in state grant money to help rebuild. Dehnbostel also received countless offers from citizens to help in any way they could.
He said he felt a tremendous burden as mayor to restore the fire damage, “and with the support we received it made that task easier.”
Protocol at the city water plant to handle such a large emergency has not changed, but Thourot thinks it should. “Something should be in place for that sort of thing,” he said.
Shaw’s Clothing reopened at its present location at 1075 N. Shoop Ave. a week after the fire. Because the space has about 2,000 feet less square footage than the original store Shaw downsized from women’s and bridal merchandise to just men’s. But he said community support was humbling.
“I’ve adapted real well. I’m half the store that I was, but my business is real good,” he said. “You can’t prepare for a fire. Life went on. You take the good things, and you make the best of them.”
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.