(Editor’s Note: The Benson warehouse fire is the third major fire the Pawhuska area has experienced in less than eight months. The first fire struck the Bronze Horse Foundry south of town in mid-December. The Bronze Horse is currently housed in the old Armory and recently completed its first major project since the fire. In January, the Osage County Historical Society Museum was damaged by an early morning blaze. Restoration efforts are in full swing for the museum which include extensive upgrades and remodeling. In spite of last week’s loss, the Bensons are optimistic about their future. The following article is about the most recent fire and the men and women whose jobs put them in harm’s way.)
City of Pawhuska Fire Captain Moses Gonzalez and Kellyman Michael Bayro were both involved with the July 10 Benson warehouse fire which resulted in a total loss of the 87-year-old structure.
Gonzalez confirmed the alarm call went out fa little after 6 p.m. Six full-time and six volunteer firefighters arrived on the scene, along with firefighters from Barnsdall and Pershing.
"It is our policy to ‘page out’ or call for assistance from all firefighters every time a fire is reported, with the exceptions of checking on controlled burns," said Gonzalez. "It was obvious this fire was beyond our resources although we were using deck guns with big trucks and lots of water."
He said that when the firefighters arrived, the east shed was engulfed. "
Because it was an old building, there was so much dried wood and flammable material in the structure," said Gonzalez. "The chances of stopping that fire were slim to none, given how fast that fire moved through it."
Bayro said that firefighters arrived on scene very quickly after the call went out.
"Our response time from the station alone was roughly 2-3 minutes or 150 seconds," said Bayro.
Although the firefighters were aware renovations were underway for the warehouse, they said they had no knowledge of the extent of the ongoing upgrades. Their task at hand was to secure the area and do their best to control the blaze.
"Expose and protect everything around the building," said Gonzalez. "Especially a building that size. If there had been more buildings around the warehouse, we would have had our hands full. The heat coming off of that building could ignite fires in other buildings."
He said by the time the fire breached the roof, it didn’t look safe.
"When Bayro and Lt. Blossom opened the two north doors to keep the wall from collapsing, they were wearing full-bunker gear," said Gonzalez. "The heat quickly escalated from 350 degrees to over 1,800 degrees."
Bayro explained that from the time the fire started to when it was fully engulfed, it took "108 seconds to no more than three minutes."
The "expose and protect" rule extended to the Allen Bros. Feed store just north of the burning warehouse.
"A feed store has a lot of dust in it," explained Gonzalez. "Dust is flammable. A feed store is also home to fertilizer products. Fertilizer, as you know, was used in the Murrah Federal Building explosion. So, we aimed the snorkel towards this building as a preventive measure to avoid an explosion that could easily have affected up to a two-mile radius."
Bayro said heat easily seeps through glass windows and is sometimes amplified,
"That’s why it was doubly important to secure the feed store," said Bayro. "We have fought house fires before where a neighbor’s curtains have ignited and Venetian blinds have begun to melt. Homeowners are not aware their next door neighbor’s fire can affect their own homes. When the Duncan Hotel burned, the intense heat caused curtains to ignite in the First National Bank Building across the street."
Gonzalez said when a business is about to open, the fire chief can inspect the building for code safety.
"In general, and what they teach in the academy, is if a firefighter goes to a business owner and asks permission to inspect the building, that business owner has the right to refuse," said Gonzalez. "It’s their personal property. If they do allow an inspection and problems are found, the most the firefighter can do is make a recommendation."
The city fire department does not currently have a book with layouts of downtown buildings. However, firefighters are each trained to confront every type of structural fire – from steel buildings to old wood – along with the latest safety procedures.
Captain Josh Alexander and Firefighter Melvin Wassom were part of the C-Shift structure crew fire team assigned to the warehouse fire.
"The only way to shut down the fire was to climb up on the roof and cut a hole in it," said Alexander. "It was deemed too dangerous for the firemen to climb up on top."
The C-Shift was also on duty when the fire broke out at the Osage County Historical Society Museum.
"We were able to save the museum because of our fast response time and our guys know what they are doing," said Gonzalez.
Local firefighters on the scene of last week’s blaze included Josh Alexander, Melvin Blossom, Moses Gonzalez, Lloyd Arnce, Lieut. Morgan Deans and Michael Bayro. Volunteers included Steve Frost, Jeff Phillippi, Travis Jensen, Tyler Thomas, Colten Porter, Charlie Brave, and Troy Jester.
Barnsdall firefighters included George Stansberry, Carl Kelley, Colton Tisdale, and Chris Haley. Volunteers for the Pershing Rural Fire Department were Trey Hall, Chuck Hall, Bailey Anderson, Brent Tilton, Joe Schlumberger, Derrick Lampher, Lee Chambers, Terry Woods and Jessie Crabtree.
The Pawhuska EMS treated a couple of firefighters who experienced heat exhaustion and dehydration. EMS members included Melissa Brave, Kathy Brown, Misty Tilton, Jennifer Smith, Brent Dildine, and Pat Hailey.
"I commend the arriving crew for doing such a speculator job of locking the fire down," Bayro said. "Our department has a lot of safety programs available. We give safety training in homes, conduct escape drills, go to the schools and open the firehouse for tours. We actually liken our programs to ‘preventing and saving’ because we start early."
He said they are hoping the "trickle-down system" works where kids share what they have learned with their parents.
"Old buildings are like kindling," said Bayro. "We do not know who may have broken through a firewall in one of the restored buildings. Another concern is building owners who lease their property should take more responsibility by conducting their own inspections and insuring safety precautions are in place, particularly overloaded electrical plugins."