Iola’s fire remembered
20th anniversary of Father’s Day devastation
By Holly Neumann
Twenty years ago, a fire in downtown Iola destroyed seven buildings, 11 businesses and 11 apartments.
Thirteen fire departments and more than 200 firefighters responded to the call.
Chuck Fritz, Iola’s fire chief at the time, shared his experiences with the Iola Historical Society on May 28.
“What happened on June 20, 1999 is ingrained in all our firefighters,” he said. “That is a day we will never forget.”
It was Father’s Day, Fritz recalled.
“When I drove by on my way to the fire station, it did not look too bad at the time,” he said. “It was Father’s Day, so I did not know what we had for help at our station. We had a very good working relationship with surrounding communities, so right away we called for help.”
Fritz remembers all the trucks sitting in the area.
“We called for all the tenders from the whole county,” he said. “It looked like a landing strip. The ladder truck from Waupaca was hooked up to our hydrant system. The tenders were running back and forth filling up from the lake.”
Firefighters went into the building, but could not get to the fire.
“I was on the interior fire attack,” said Jim Aanstad. “We went in a side door, feeling our way through but it just wasn’t working.”
“Firefighters were going up on the balcony,” said Bill Westphal.
“All of a sudden, you could see the smoke coming out and going back into the building,” said Fritz. “It scared the bejeezus out of me.”
Air horn saves lives
The air horn was sounded to warn the firefighters.
“The air horn is an international sound to get everyone out of a building,” said Westphal. “People were scrambling.”
In less than five minutes an explosion occurred.
“If it wasn’t for Chuck, there could have been some horrible injuries or someone could have died,” said Aanstad.
Fritz said the explosion occurred because the fire was being starved for air.
“All of a sudden ka-boom. It was like a big whooshing sound. I was scared. I thought we were going to be pulling people out of there,” Fritz said. “What saved everyone was that they all had turned their backs and they were running out. Firefighter Mike Mazemke was blown into street. Glass was shot into the hose and into the side of the trucks.”
After the explosion, it was called a defensive attack.
The decision was made to tear down some buildings, so the fire woulld not spread through the remainder of the block.
Chad Bestul went in with a backhoe to knock down the buildings.
“It was going from building to building as fast as I could,” Fritz said. “If we didn’t tear them down, we would have lost the whole block.”
“He is a hero,” said a community member.
Businesses, along with the residents living in the apartments above, lost everything.
“One interesting story, once the state let everyone in, Kori (Skowen) Printz, who was living in one of the apartments was able to find her grandma’s ring in the rubble,” said Fritz.
The fire’s cause was never determined and nobody was injured.