De Pere fire worsened by house’s construction and frigid weather

Five people who lived in the multi-family home are being helped by the Red Cross
Firefighters say flames spread quickly through the walls of the older home
Published: Jan. 26, 2022 at 7:37 PM CST|Updated: Jan. 27, 2022 at 5:19 PM CST
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DE PERE, Wis. (WBAY) - Construction and frigid weather combined to make fighting a house fire in De Pere Wednesday night much more challenging. Thursday, the five people who lived in the multi-family home on De Pere’s west side are being helped by the American Red Cross.

De Pere Fire-Rescue Battalion Chief Jack Mlnarik says four people escaped the home in the 800-block of Ash Street. One person from the upper unit was injured during evacuation and taken to a hospital for medical treatment.

Mlnarik says early on it appears the fire started on the first floor in the kitchen area. An investigation into the cause is underway by a Brown County fire investigation team. The fire chief believes the house is a total loss.

The age of the home contributed to the difficulty putting out the fire. Mlnarik said the older, two-story wood frame house had been remodeled many times and the flames spread through the walls and ceiling areas.

“It’s the type of construction, kind of a barn-style construction, so there’s a lot of newels and voids that fire travels in, and it gets trapped and you need to find those areas and voids and that’s where the process becomes quite extensive chasing it down. The construction itself was balloon frame, meaning that the walls follow from the bottom all the way up to the top, so when a fire gets in that wall, it goes right to the attic pretty quickly, and that was one issues we were facing,” Mlnarik said.

There was extensive fire, smoke and water damage to the upper and lower units.

Emily Willard, who lives across the street, told us she saw flames coming from the top floor of the house. “When I first looked at, it was just smoke pouring out of the back and I really couldn’t tell if it was the yard or the house. And now you can tell that it very much is the house, and it’s pouring out the back and it’s pouring out the top window.”

Due to the fire conditions inside the home, crews had to battle the blaze from outside. A Green Bay battalion chief said crews had a hard time putting out the fire due to the cold. He said crews attacked it with aerial sprays but the water froze on the firefighters’ uniforms, slowing them down. According to First Alert Weather, the temperature at 8:15 P.M. was 8 degrees with a wind chill of -5 due to a south wind of 8 MPH.

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WATCH: 3 adults, 2 children displaced by De Pere house fire in bitter cold

Mlnarik said crews “train when it’s cold, we train when it’s warm,” but acknowledged the cold was taking a toll on firefighters. He said that was why they had such a large contingent so they can rotate the crews in and out and give them a chance to get warm. We saw fire trucks from Green Bay, Ashwaubenon and Wrightstown as well as De Pere.

“Normally we wouldn’t have had that many people on a fire that size, but due to the fact that it was that cold, guys are freezing up there, bottles freeze up, radios freeze up, batteries go dead in radios, all those issues I told you before that continually happen when it’s that cold. So that’s why we had more people so we were able to cycle them in and out, warm them up, next group comes in, warm those people up and continually cycle people, make sure we’re taking care of the firefighters,” said Mlnarik.

Crews were on scene for about five hours.

The Red Cross told us its disaster teams have responded to 73 fires in Wisconsin and the western Upper Peninsula affecting 349 people. “Those numbers are high even for our typical busy home fire season.”

“Fires just keep happening and are impacting a lot more people than we would have anticipated,” Red Cross of Wisconsin communications director Justin Kern told us.

Kern said 16 of the fires were in Northeast Wisconsin, affecting almost 90 people.

The American Red Cross has helped 349 people after fires in Wisconsin and the western U.P. since the start of the month
Firefighters battle a blaze at a three-unit apartment house in De Pere (Emily Willard)
Firefighters from De Pere and other cities battled a house fire on Ash St.
Firefighters from De Pere and other cities battled a house fire on Ash St.(WBAY)

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