For the city of Denison, Oct. 9, 2019 will go down as one of the days that changed the face, figuratively and literally, of the city’s historic downtown. While the fire from that day has long been extinguished, and the rubble has been cleared, officials with the city say there are still lessons to be learned from that day.
Officials are still looking for ways and programs to prevent future fires, like the one that destroyed three buildings on downtown Main Street one years ago.
“Any fire that happens in a historic downtown area is going to be a significant fire for any fire chief because of the historic value and it touches people outside of the downtown area,” Denison Fire Chief Gregg Loyd said. “This is especially true in Denison because there is a huge commitment and love for our downtown.”
When Loyd, a 26 year veteran firefighter with tenures in both Sherman and Denison, took the job as fire chief in 2016, one of his early goals was to go through his time without a fire downtown.
The event he hoped to prevent happened four years in when a fire was sparked in Luxor Nails and Spa in the 300 block of W. Main Street. The blaze eventually destroyed the spa and two neighboring buildings, with several others sustaining various levels of damage as a result.
Earlier this year, the fire department said the probable cause for the fire was a faulty appliance.
In his years of firefighting, Loyd said he has seen and experienced several fires including one in downtown Sherman and another in downtown Denison that claimed the life of a firefighter in the 1980.
The 1980 fire was not far from the site of the 2019 fire.
While he has fought fires that were physically larger, Loyd said these types of fires are significant due to the emotions tied to the buildings.
“In a broader perspective, it wasn’t as large as other fires I’ve had in the past,” Loyd said. We’ve had some big wildfires that I’ve been deployed to … and those were big, big fires over a large area with lots of resources. However, this was a fire that did require us to rely on mutual aid. So from that perspective it was a large fire, but the physical size of the fire was not a really, really large.”
One of the key challenges with this fire was the location itself.
Down towns historically have proven to be difficult for firefighters due to the close construction of buildings, their age and several other reasons. Due to the close nature of the buildings, Loyd said firefighters had difficulty getting access to fight the fire.
“Any time you have a downtown situation there are access issues,” Loyd said. “The construction makes it more difficult to access places the fire may be and that means it is usually going to take longer to fight and will require more manpower. We just did not have the manpower to do that — Nobody really does.”
To fight the fire, Loyd said Denison had to rely on mutual aid, including the assistance of at least a half-dozen neighboring departments. This manpower was necessary as the nature of the fire, along with other factors, required firefighters to be constantly cycled in out.
“Given the age of these buildings, it is not really safe to be on the roof or under the roof, so you need to be very careful about how you enter and make sure you have secure ways to exit, and that requires time,” Loyd said.
Another factor that came into play during this fire was the department’s inability to fight the fire from above. During the fire, the department’s ladder truck was in the shop for repairs, Loyd said. This further required the assistance of mutual aid, Loyd said.
Another factor at play in the fire was the location itself, Loyd said. Many down towns across the country face similar issues with their downtown districts due to the age, Loyd said.
In many cases, these buildings were not built to the same fire code as current construction. In other cases, these buildings have been heavily renovated and changed. In these cases, damage or changes to the walls have occurred that leave the buildings susceptible to fire.
In their natural state, concrete walls can serve as an effective barrier to fires. However, over the years, holes have been made in many of these walls, leaving room for the fire to spread past them.
“That is a recipe where you have a significant risk of loss, but also a risk of loss of the external value to the community,” Loyd said.
One of Loyd’s long term dreams would be to install sprinkler systems throughout the downtown district. However, he said this is a long-term goal that could be a decade or more away from reality.
Still, Loyd said he plans to roll out new programs in the new year aimed at prevent a future fire. These include patching holes that have been made in buildings over the years and educating property owners how they can help stop the spread in the event of a fire. As an example, Loyd said closing doors can limit air flow and give first responders more time to get the fire under control.
Other efforts will involve working with property owners to modernize roofs with more modern, fire resistant materials.
With regard to the ladder truck, Loyd said the city has been using a loaner since February and plans to use it until a new truck can be put in service. The city initially planned to have a new truck in Denison this spring, however the COVID-19 pandemic slowed these plans.
Loyd said that current plans call for department officials to fly out and do final inspection of the replacement equipment in October. Once the truck in delivered, the city will be able to do final touches with plans to put it in service by Nov. 1.
Despite the loss to the city, Loyd said other cities have been able to use the blaze as a learning experience. At least six other departments have reached out to him since the fire for advice and information. Loyd said he hopes that his department’s experiences can help better prepare other departments in the event a similar disaster occurs.
“When you start in the fire service they go over down towns because it is a service-wide issue,” Loyd said. “Even if you do not have a downtown, you are probably responding mutual aid to someone who does.”