RACINE COUNTY — During this polar vortex, local firefighters are battling both the harsh wind chill and flames.
Two fires broke out Wednesday morning as temperatures plunged to nearly 20 degrees below zero and wind chills reached into the negative 50s. In both cases, as water spewed, it froze on the street, on firefighters and on fire rigs.
In the extreme conditions, firefighters are at risk of frostbite or nearly being frozen in place by their own water splashing and freezing on them.
“It’s just hard on everything,” said Battalion Chief John Radewan of the South Shore Fire Department. “It’s hard on equipment; it’s hard on personnel.”
South Shore responded at 10:18 a.m. to an attached garage fire at 1505 Meadowbrook Blvd., Mount Pleasant. By the time the fire was declared under control at 10:51 a.m., it had spread to the outside of the house and caused smoke damage to the kitchen and living area.
The department had to deploy all available units so firefighters could rotate in and out of the cold. And, because all units were deployed, South Shore called the Kenosha and Somers fire departments for mutual aid to man South Shore Station 9 in Sturtevant.
“It’s definitely not fun to fight a fire in this extreme cold,” said Radewan, who was at the scene until 12:41 p.m.
The layer of ice that builds up on firefighters can have a slightly beneficial effect, though, according to Battalion Chief Paul Madden of the Racine Fire Department.
“The ice isn’t getting them (firefighters) wet,” Madden said. “The ice is actually holding the heat inside.”
But, “At a certain point, you’ve got to thaw out” because it can become a huge inconvenience, Madden said.
Fire crews also bring liberal amounts of sand and Oil-Dri, an absorbent material, to soak up some of the water to avoid “creating our own skating rink,” Madden said.
At the Meadowbrook Boulevard fire, South Shore firefighters performed overhaul, or cutting into the walls to find hidden flames, to make sure the fire was not still burning inside. The fire’s cause was determined to be an unattended heating device that was thawing frozen water lines.
Two people who were inside the house escaped before firefighters arrived. They were not injured and will be staying with relatives, Radewan said.
In all, the fire caused about $75,000 in damage and left the house uninhabitable because of the overhaul work.
The Mount Pleasant Police Department and We Energies also responded to the scene.
Dog saves man
At 1:22 a.m. Wednesday, the Racine Fire Department responded to a house fire in the 1100 block of Saxony Drive, according to a news release.
The house’s owner, the sole occupant, was saved by man’s best friend. His dog alerted him to the early-morning fire.
Firefighters battled the blaze while the wind chill was a biting 43 degrees below zero and the actual air temperature was 16 below. As South Shore did at the Mount Pleasant fire, Racine Fire deployed extra crews to rotate firefighters in and out.
No firefighters were injured, but paramedics treated the homeowner at the scene and transported him to Ascension All Saints Hospital to treat his injuries. He was later transferred to Milwaukee Columbia St. Mary’s Regional Burn Center for additional treatment.
The dog was taken to the Wisconsin Humane Society.
The house sustained an estimated $95,000 in damage, and the fire’s cause is under investigation.