In the early morning hours of February 3, 2016 many of the buildings in Madelia’s downtown business district were destroyed or damaged by a fire that consumed most of a city block. The fire broke out at about 2:30 a.m. and continued for more than nine hours. By noon firefighters had showered hundreds of thousands of gallons of water to extinguish the flames, but at least five of the buildings on the north side of Main Street were destroyed.
Madelia City Administrator Jane Piepgras said La Plaza Fiesta restaurant, Hope and Faith Floral and Gift, Culligan Water, American Family Insurance Brokerage, Tressa Veona hair salon, Kay’s New & Used, a Mexican grocery store, and Gethmann dental office, were all lost in the fire. “In a small community, all the business are connected,” she said.
Only one or two firefighters suffered minor injuries. “We’ll be putting out hot spots still,” Fire Chief Mark Denn said late Wednesday afternoon. Though visibly standing, La Plaza Fiesta restaurant and dental office sustained such heavy damage that they are beyond repair and will have to be torn down. The Culligan soft water business storefront was torn down to save the rest of the Northside block, of which the chamber is at the west end. The gas and power was turned off in those buildings before demolition.
One of the main challenges surrounding the fire was the overnight blizzard that prevented mutual aid from responding quickly. Fire departments from Lake Crystal, Lewisville, St. James, Hanska, LaSalle, Truman, Ormsby and Odin-Butterfield assisted the Madelia Fire Department and were courageous in making the journey as Chief Denn explained, “Some of them couldn’t get through really well, they had to get their local plows to plow them out part of the way.” As Madelia crews arrived on scene, two explosions went off from inside the buildings, fueling the fire. “The fire gets air and it moves fast,” Denn said. With the cold weather, firefighters also experienced equipment freeze and difficulty in getting diesel-powered construction equipment out to help. He said insurance companies for the property owners now take the lead on clearing out the rubble.
According to Watonwan County property records, the properties were assessed at nearly $300,000 in value. Denn said the property loss is one thing, but “These buildings are all full,” referring to inventory and equipment loss, so actual business losses incurred will be substantially higher.
Karla Angus, executive director of the Madelia Chamber of Commerce, said, “We’re still in shock. This is the heart of the community.” Angus lives about a block away and didn't know about the fire until about 6 a.m. Like many business and property owners, city employees worked from well before to well after business hours doing whatever they could to provide support and encouragement to each other “We’re a very strong community,” Angus said. “We’re here to help one another.” Michelle VanHee, co-owner of the Madelia Times Messenger newspaper, echoed the sentiment saying the loss of so many family-owned business is a blow. “It’s all people who live and work here. They’ve lost their buildings, their livelihood, their employees. In a small town we’re all family. It’s devastating,” VanHee said. “It’s going to change the face of Madelia.” One of the buildings destroyed was the La Plaza Fiesta, a Mexican restaurant. “It was an absolute favorite in town,” VanHee said. A Gofundme site for Krystal and Daniel Hernandez, owners of the Mexican restaurant, has already been set up and raised several hundred dollars.
Tom Jessen, who lives just a few blocks away from downtown, walked over after a friend from St. Cloud called and asked if it was his town on fire. “We could smell it around 7 a.m.,” he said. He mourned the loss of some of the oldest downtown buildings. “It was the heart and soul of downtown,” he said. “They were the most classic of the downtown buildings."
Madelia schools were already scheduled to be closed Wednesday because of the storm. “How the fire departments all got here I don’t know,” VanHee said. “The roads are all closed going in and out of town.” Many highways had been closed overnight because of the blizzard. Though some were starting to open in the early morning, Highway 60 at the junction of Highway 169 near Mankato remained closed at about 8 a.m.
In the afternoon, plows cleared Main Street of soot-covered slush after the fire crews were done while city officials sought rebuilding help from regional and state officials. Mayor Mike Grote told officials the fire most likely started at the floral shop or a neighboring basement. The Minnesota State Fire Marshal is investigating the fire and will have be determining a cause in the near future.
State Senator Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, and Region 9 Executive Director Nicole Griensewic Mickelson visited with city officials about possible sources for business and infrastructure grants. The three listed a slew of regional, state and federal resources that they had and would contact, everything from federal representatives and U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development to private foundations. Region 9 offered grant-writing expertise and coordination. Rosen and Cornish offered to get Madelia into the bonding bill into the March legislative session.
Mayor Mike Grote said the city could use help with infrastructure, replacing damaged fire equipment and flexibility working with government agencies, sorting out issues that may arise from extinguishing and cleaning up from the fire. One example of this was the fact that in order to control and extinguish the fire, 400,000 gallons of water were used, which could have ramifications on the water table. But the bottom line is getting the community back on their feet and that includes not only the business and property owners but also the employees and residents affected by the loss of the buildings. “We have 25 to 30 people that instantly lost their livelihoods this morning,” the mayor said. Cornish assured, “We want to help with the long-term implications.” Madelia Community Hospital and Clinic Administrator Candace Fenske, Region 9 commissioner, said she was relieved there were no lives lost and only one firefighter experienced minor injuries. She told the officials the hospital’s Madelia Community-Based Collaborative will likely offer mental health services to those affected in some way by the fire.
“I was born and grew up in Madelia,” he said. “How do I make it more prosperous than it was already? Where do we go?” Rosen said, “You guys are going to bounce back and very strong.”
And we will be, and we are, Madelia Strong.
Mankato Free Press, February 4, 2016 by Nancy Madsen and Tim Krohn