Monday, September 1, 2008

Too close for comfort

At 11:30 a.m. yesterday firefighters were still dousing hot spots after a massive blaze on River Street in Ontonagon, Michigan.

A gaping hole is all that is left of six picturesque old false-front frame buildings that were a photographer's dream subject just last Friday.

Rear view of the destruction. The building in the center across the street looks OK, but its interior was gutted when flames leaped across the street. (Click on any of the photos for a slightly larger version.)

Notice the photographs posted below on Aug. 29, two high-dynamic-range-imaging shots of a block of buildings on River Street, the main drag of Ontonagon, Michigan, prototype of Porcupine City in my mystery novels. I had stopped there Friday morning to take pictures of a strip of six buildings with quaint false fronts.

Yesterday, not quite two days after those photos were taken, a massive fire erupted at 5 a.m. in one of the buildings, and by dawn all six of those structures had been totally consumed. (The "Nonesuch" building in the first picture survived. It lies a block farther up the street.)

Miraculously, no one was killed. One firefighter suffered burns on his hands; no one else was injured.

But Connie's Place, the town's charming, old-fashioned ice cream shop -- which the Lady Friend and I had frequented at least once a week this summer (and just nine hours before the fire broke out) -- is gone, and so is Ontonagon's only video store. Fortunately two friends of mine, the proprietors of a tax and bookkeeping service in one of the stricken buildings, managed to get in and rescue their computers before the blaze destroyed everything else.

Embers leaped from west to east across the main street, gutting an outdoors clothing store, but the firefighters kept further disaster at bay.

It's a wonder that the blaze didn't take more buildings -- most on the main drag are ancient wooden frame structures, and it has been a long, dry summer.

At this writing no official cause of the fire has been released.

Happily, this stouthearted town's Labor Day parade stepped off on time later in the day, although without the ritual fire engine, and traversed only half of River Street, bypassing the still smoking ruins. Whether the equipment needed cleaning and refurbishing or the volunteer firefighters were just too pooped to participate I don't know, but I saw at least one driving his pickup in the parade with his church's float in tow.

Many of the floats were emblazoned with "Thank You, Firemen" signs. In all, eight volunteer fire companies from towns elsewhere in the county came in to help the Ontonagon firefighters.

Ontonagon has a long memory of fire. In 1896 the Great Ontonagon Fire -- a conflagration that began at the Diamond Match Company -- nearly destroyed the town, and it never recovered fully. The downtown townscape, full of empty blocks never rebuilt after 1896, now looks as if it's missing still more teeth.

But Ontonagon survives still -- thanks to its own gutsy citizens.

See today's entry in my photography blog for another photo of a picturesque building that was lost.

See also a comment below from an Ontonagonian who with her husband led his elderly parents to safety from their apartment in a building next to one that caught fire.

September 4: See here for an aerial photograph of the ruins.


  1. Following is an email sent out this morning from a friend, an Ontonagonian who with her husband owns a couple of buildings slightly damaged in the fire. His elderly parents occupied the upstairs apartment in one of them.

    This morning at 5:15 we got a call from my husband's mom that three buildings were on fire and the wind was shifting. I thought it was probably a garbage can or flower box on fire and she was freaking out. Was I ever wrong! We threw on clothes and took off for town. When we hit the bridge [across the Ontonagon River] we could see flames from downtown shooting up in the air at least 50 feet.

    We parked on a side street and before we hit the main drag could feel the heat and were getting hit with spray from fire hoses. I couldn't see the little yellow building next to Hegg's Plumbery. The vacant cafe with the painted scenes in the windows was a ball of fire and the vacant building where Lake Superior Voice had been was burning.

    In no time at all it was obvious the video store was going to burn, too. We got Mike's parents important stuff out of our building (the one next to Camp One across the street) and got them out of their apartment, which occupies the full second story.

    As we were hauling stuff out, I saw Connie's Place start to catch fire. About that time, Connie called. She was at work at the mill and couldn't leave. She wanted to know what was happening, how her building was and I had to tell her it had just caught fire. As the fire fighters were hosing her building, I watched the street light melt and the American flag on the pole vaporize.

    The FD called in some heavy equipment as it was obvious that the bookkeeping shop was next. They leveled the front of it. Had they not done that, I've no doubt that we were going down, too.

    Burning debris was falling from the sky and it looked like it was raining fire. All the while the fire department was hosing the nearest buildings that weren't involved. Debris was blowing at us from the other buildings and not really catching hold. But if another building had been added to the inferno, I've no doubt our building would have been lit up, too.

    As we watched, embers fell between our building and Camp One, the outdoor clothing store. It was all but impossible for the firemen to get water to it and ultimately it caught the siding on Camp One, went in a window, and started to burn between the walls and in between the floors.

    All the while, with so many hoses in use, there were water issues. They sent out a call for mutual aid, and FD's from eight other towns responded. They set up portable ponds, filled them from tanker trucks, refilled the trucks from the river, then pumped the water from the ponds to the fires.

    All in all, six buildings are gone, with five apartments and four businesses.

    A party was going on in one of the first buildings to burn. Rumor has it there were 25 people there. They ran down and had the owner of Stubbs' Bar call 911 -- they were cleaning after closing.

    The fire marshall was here from Escanaba, but it was still too hot for him to begin an inspection. He'll be back Tuesday.

    Our building has some damage on the roof (rubber membrane), the exterior is a mess, but intact. There is surprisingly little smoke inside, considering there were times you could only see feet in front of your face.

    We've given the bookkeeping shop owners first option to utilize our office space. They had time to get their computers out, as did the insurance office next to them and Camp One.

    Other buildings had related damage. Vinyl siding melted off the front of my old antique shop, and off the Citizens Bank. Some windows were blown out.

    Happily, there were no serious injuries. One fireman had a burn on his hand, but that's it.

    I think the whole town is in a state of shock.

    Based on what we watched this morning, which in the big scheme of things was a little fire, I don't ever want to see a lake of fire.

  2. All told, there were 7 buildings destroyed, 6 on one side of the street and the seventh on the other. It's still standing, but essentially gutted. Exhaustion was closing in as my original comment was written.

  3. As of today, Sept. 2, further news is that twelve, not eight, volunteer fire departments came to the Ontonagon VFD's assistance.

    The fire chief has estimated damage at $250,000. This may not sound like much in urban conflagration terms, but to a small town (pop. 1,741) like Ontonagon, it is a severe blow to the local economy.

  4. The damage estimate has now climbed to $750,000.

  5. I went to high school in Ontonagon and lived in Rockland where my mom and sister still live. Thanks for printing those pictures...they are better than any I have seen in the paper. I would love to read some of your books -my soul is still in the UP.

  6. Henry,
    Thanks for the update on the Ontonagon fire. I am a former Yooper living in Chicago and my father still lives in South Range. I would be interested in reading your books. Where could I find them.

    Dave P.

  7. Dave:

    In Ontonagon the books are available in the Herald office and the museum. Or you could find them on Some are in print and some out of print, but copies of everything are available from affiliate booksellers.