Black smoke and flames billowed from the roof at Brainerd City Hall during the lunch hour Monday, May 18, as firefighters battled not only the fire, but the 36 mph wind gusts.
Ten staff members were inside city hall at the time of the fire, but all got out safely. Employees stood on the sidewalk outside the building. Nearly 30 firefighters from the Brainerd Fire Department were on scene with the department’s ladder truck planted in the middle of Laurel Street. Several tanker trucks, Brainerd and Baxter police vehicles and a North Memorial Health Ambulance were also present. Traffic was blocked on Laurel Street between South Sixth and Fifth streets, and South Fifth Street to the west of city hall was also blocked.
The 911 call came just before 12:30 p.m. Firefighters quickly worked on fighting the fire from the ground using the ladder truck and from the rooftop. With the strong wind gusts, charred debris of several shapes and sizes blew in the air to the point where bystanders had to watch out so they wouldn’t get hit. The green grass in front of city hall on the south side quickly turned black from the debris falling from the roof.
Brainerd City Engineer Paul Sandy said he and staff members were in city hall having lunch, when they received a call there was a fire on the roof. Sandy said his office is located above the front entrance door and he initially thought construction workers were blowing stuff off the roof because of the debris flying through the air. The more than 100-year-old Brainerd City Hall is currently under a remodeling project, and crews are redoing the roof. Once staff members got the call about the fire, they exited the building safely and they could see all the black smoke and debris coming off the roof.
Brainerd City Administrator Jennifer Bergman was out to lunch when she got the call.
“I was eating my lunch and I dropped everything and came here,” Bergman said. “My first thought was I hope everyone got out of there safely. I called as soon as I got the call (about the fire) to make sure our staff got out safely. We have a number of interns who just started and I wanted to make sure they were safe ... and everyone did get out safely.
“We are in the middle of a remodel right now and ... that flag says it all. It’s just so sad to see this historic building on fire. But again lives matter, buildings can be replaced. I’m proud to say our firefighters were on scene in four minutes.”
Bergman referred to the American flag visible on the roof, partially consumed and blackened by the fire and barely clinging to one rope as the strong wind propelled it over city hall. But the flag stayed the course through the event, even in its tattered condition.
Brainerd Mayor Dave Badeaux was driving around when he heard there was a fire at city hall.
“It’s definitely not something we were hoping for,” Badeaux said. “We were just talking last week how smoothly the project was going and how it looked like we would be under budget and I guess everything went too smooth.”
Brainerd Fire Chief Tim Holmes said the initial fire was contained within 10 minutes. However, firefighters spent a good hour checking the roof truss structure to make sure the fire didn’t spread through the multiple layers of the roof system. To do this, Holmes said firefighters cut trenches on the roof, which are long narrow ventilation holes that act as a fire break on the roof of a structure that is on fire. This defensive tactic is used to cut off fire extension to an area of the building that has not been involved in fire, according to Firehouse.com, which serves as a resource for fire/rescue professionals.
Holmes said the fire caused minor water damage on the second and third floor of city hall and light smoke damage throughout the building. Sandy said during the Brainerd City Council meeting Monday night it looks like three or four joists on the roof were damaged, along with the sheeting, which was set to be replaced during the remodel anyway. Sandy said some ceiling tiles and flooring on the second and third floors will have to be repaired as well, but none of the new electrical equipment was damaged.
Holmes said during the meeting the water damaged was controlled well inside but cautioned the council against moving too quickly to get the contractors back in the building before insurance adjusters, the state fire marshal and all responsible parties have assessed the situation.
Sandy said Monday night insurance adjusters with the League of Minnesota Cities will be on scene Tuesday morning on behalf of the city and said adjusters for Thelen Heating and Roofing and Northern Air Corp. — the two contractors working on the roof at the time — have been contacted. Engineering firm Widseth, he added, is working on a repair plan, and he will likely know more Tuesday about how long the new repairs may take.
Fire started and was contained to the roof, but water damage is extensive on the 3rd floor and expanding to the 2nd floor.— Gabe Johnson (@THEGabeJohnson) May 18, 2020
The investigator with the Minnesota State Fire Marshal’s office arrived on scene Monday and is working with the Brainerd Fire Department to determine the cause and origin of the fire. Holmes said there were two contracting companies working on the roof at the time of the fire. Fire investigators will work to narrow down all the details leading up to the fire.
“There was a ton of smoke going all the way down Laurel Street because of the strong winds as we are in a red flag warning right now,” Holmes said. Firefighters responded from the fire hall, which is just a few blocks west of city hall. “These strong winds had an impact on the amount of smoke going through town. There was heavy smoke and flames showing on this southeast corner of the building.”
Just before the fire was reported, the National Weather Service in Duluth issued a red flag warning for wind and low relative humidity to be in effect until 7 p.m. Monday in all of Crow Wing and Cass counties and the northern half of Aitkin County. The weather service is asking people to refrain from burning as fires can spread quickly in these dry and windy conditions.