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As 2013 came to an end, and 2014 exploded with two events that tested the department to its fullest, Evanston’s Fire Chief, Greg Klaiber, sat down with the RoundTable to discuss the Davis Street fire, the deep freeze and its effect on the department, as well as a range of other topics. This will be the first of two articles.

Davis Street Fire

As Saturday night turned to Sunday morning, Dec. 29, fire broke out at the Pine Yard restaurant on the corner of Davis and Oak streets in downtown Evanston. The call went in at 2:24 a.m., and Evanston firefighters were on the scene within three and a half minutes.

By the time Chief Klaiber arrived at the scene about 15 minutes later, and before he even took over incident command, the call had already gone out for all firefighters to abandon the building and get off the roof. The first firefighters on the roof “cut an inspection hole and saw flames in the wood trusses,” said Chief Klaiber. Standard Operating Guidelines require that everyone evacuate the building and the roof when fire has infiltrated the wood trusses in a building that has them.

It was that quick, said Chief Klaiber. Within 15 minutes of firefighters arriving on the scene, the operation turned from an offensive action – in which the department tries to put out the fire – to a defensive operation, in which the department tries to keep the fire from spreading to adjacent buildings.

“It’s tough to take,” Chief Klaiber said. “It’s a helpless feeling … to watch the destructive nature of fire, knowing you’re doing everything you can. … You hate to [pull out] because, once you do that, you know you have lost the whole building.” The Pine Yard, Technicolour Nail and Day Spa and Taco Diablo restaurant were all in the building; all three businesses were destroyed.

The Evanston Fire Department prides itself in achieving its goal of limiting 75% of structure fires to the room in which the fire originated. This was impossible in this instance, however, where the fire had already spread outside the room of origin and into the truss system before the department arrived.

With truss construction, large beams stretch across full buildings and trusses connect to beams, allowing open spaces without beams or load-bearing walls. When a fire gets into the trusses, said Chief Klaiber, the structure can collapse, in whole or in part, at any time. Two Chicago firefighters died just last year as a result of a truss collapse, he told City Council Monday night, Jan.13. For firefighter safety, fire in the trusses essentially means the building is lost.

The Davis Street fire, said the Chief, originated in the Pine Yard kitchen. The first firefighters on the scene reported seeing flames licking out of the kitchen vent chimney on the roof, leading to a suspicion that the fire began either on or around the stove just below the vent, or in the vent itself. Kitchen equipment has been salvaged by insurance investigators and will be examined at length. Investigators may never determine an exact cause, but the Chief feels comfortable stating a belief that the origin was the Pine Yard stovetop areas.

The engine company that first arrived Dec. 29 had just inspected the Pine Yard about a week before the fire, so the department knew there was nothing inherently unsafe in the restaurant. Shift Commander Bill Muno, the first commander on the scene, knew the layout because he had been there inspecting the building so recently, the Chief said.

Chief Klaiber praised his firefighters for their professionalism, dedication and valor in fighting the fire. They were not alone. Evanston is part of a Mutual Aid Box Alarm System (MABAS), and the call went out shortly after EFD recognized the severity of the fire. Morton Grove, Northfield, Skokie, Wilmette and Winnetka all sent fire companies to Evanston’s aid. In all, Chief Klaiber says he believes about 50 firefighters were on the scene for an operation that lasted over five hours in the dead of night.

All 26 on-duty Evanston firefighters were on the scene. Other MABAS communities provided coverage for the rest of Evanston because, as Chief Klaiber said, one big fire does not mean that other calls do not come in. “I am very grateful for the type of system we have,” he said.

A fire as destructive as the Davis Street fire could easily have engulfed the whole block, the Chief said, but efforts of the department and of neighboring departments prevented the fire from spreading. The Wheel and Sprocket bicycle shop, right next to Taco Diablo, was saved, as was the Smylie Bros. Restaurant & Brewey 1615 Oak Ave., still under construction, to the north.

For five hours, EFD trained three aerial hoses onto the fire, spewing 1,000 gallons of water per minute each, and two “monitor” hoses – one from the roof of Wheel and Sprocket and one from the corner of Oak and Davis. The Chief said that more than a million gallons of water in all went into the building.

Asked to name the biggest fire he could recall during his time with the EFD, Chief Klaiber mentioned first the Clock Museum fire of 2011, next to the Margarita Inn on Oak Avenue, but then said, “In my tenure as Chief, this [Davis Street fire] is it.”

Chief Klaiber lauded the work not only of his department and the 26 firefighters who directly fought the blaze, but also of other departments within the City. He said he had to call the water department to increase water pressure at Oak and Davis, which they did. Streets and Sanitation closed down Oak when needed, the police department directed traffic and provided other support, Martha Logan handled the press and other inquiries and the service center delivered fuel to fire trucks so that they did not have to leave the scene for refueling, he said. “The City came together. … We should be tremendously proud that we have a City that works together like this.”

Aside from the heroic efforts of the City’s and neighboring communities’ firefighters, another reason the fire was not worse was that there was little or no wind, and temperatures were in the 40s when the fire struck. Had there been high winds, or had the thermometer stayed in the -10 range as it did just a week later, “the outcome would have been far more tragic, impacting everyone on the scene,” said Chief Klaiber. Subfreezing temperatures present an entirely different set of challenges for the department.

Two storms separated by just a couple of days dropped a total of about 27 inches of snow on Evanston, and immediately after, temperatures fell to the lowest in at least 30 years, with a high of about -10 on Jan. 5. Next issue, the second of this two-article series will cover that and other topics, among them the new state hiring policy, the number of calls the department fielded in 2013, and what can be expected in 2014.