Crews respond to Madison apartment fire, say pandemic makes their job harder
Crews responded to a large-scale, high winds fire at an multi-family apartment building on Madison's southwest side Saturday afternoon.
Video of the fire shows large, burnt-out holes along the third story of the building, with flames and smoke visible inside. Earlier that afternoon, video from an NBC15 News viewer shows what appears to be tall flames shooting into the sky.
The Madison Fire Department says several engines arrived just after 1 p.m. to the three-story apartment in the 3100 block of Muir Field Road. The fire took at least an hour to put out with high winds making it difficult for crews.
Madison Fire Chief Steven Davis said no one was injured in the fire, but crews were still working to find some pets left behind. By Saturday evening, two cats were still unaccounted for.
MFD added that a 911 caller reported an explosion at the apartment, but that has not been confirmed at this time by authorities. Investigators believe the fire was accidental and are still working to find the cause.
A Red Cross spokesperson, Justin Kern, said in an update that their teams are assessing temporary lodging and basic needs for as many as 75 residents. (The Red Cross assesses there are 24 units, each with 2-3 bedrooms, so as many as 75 people). By Saturday evening, Kern said 14 families had been put up in a hotel.
Rachel Hellenbrand, who lives in a unit on the 2nd floor of the building, tells NBC15 News that she thought she heard two explosions rock the building this afternoon, one of them sounding like a "wet towel snapping on the floor."
Other residents said they also heard a loud pop or boom and saw smoke outside their windows. Dozens of residents were also seen waiting outside a smoking building.
Davis said the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic makes responding to emergencies even more challenging.
"When we get in a big firefight like this, the social distancing rules kind of go out the window. The PPE, the mask, the paper, the filter masks that we see them wear on calls and things, kind of goes out the window," Davis explained.
Davis added that when battling flames, firefighters are often in tight quarters.
Justin Kern with the Red Cross said their disaster response has also changed amid COVID-19 health concerns.
"We would usually open a shelter in this situation and I'd probably head out there," Kern explained.
Volunteers now work with people over the phone as much as possible, and they take precautions in person.
"We're practicing social distancing, we're wearing masks, we're bringing masks to people," Kern said.
Despite these extra challenges, first responders said they will find a way to overcome them.
"I'm always proud of them," Davis said of the firefighters on scene.
Kern echoed that, saying, "We still feel really proud that our volunteers are able to be there for people who definitely need it."
Later Saturday evening, firefighters were able to help residents salvage what they could from first and second-floor apartments. The third floor was closed to residents because of safety concerns, but firefighters brought items out from those apartments for the owners.
In the next few days, the Red Cross will be connecting with everyone affected to make sure their basic housing, food and health needs are met.