A trio of fires in Winona’s historic downtown has worried some business owners and city officials who wonder whether the Fire Department ought to bring back its inspector.
Over the past 18 months, three big blazes have erupted downtown. The first, in September 2013, destroyed the Winona Islamic Center and damaged neighboring buildings. The cause: electrical. Then fires burned at KidSport Gymnastics in September and at E. 3rd and Walnut streets in February. The causes of those two fires are still undetermined.
“It certainly concerns me,” said Mayor Mark Peterson. “We don’t know the cause of the two fires, yet. We don’t know if we had more fire inspectors whether that would have prevented these fires.”
But the City Council should consider reinstating a fire inspector position cut in 2009, Peterson said. “I think it’s a discussion we should have.”
At a February council meeting, Jason Theusch, assistant chief for fire prevention, announced that the department would step up its inspections, taking a look at all 703 properties that fall under its responsibility this year.
“We are going to try and get more aggressive with our inspections downtown,” he added.
After city budget cuts led to the elimination of the fire inspector, the Fire Department inspected far fewer buildings, data show.
The number of regular inspections dropped from 187 in 2008 to just 19 in 2009, according to the department’s annual reports. In 2013, the department did 69 regular inspections. Re-inspections, too, fell dramatically. And the number of violations that were corrected dropped from 391 in 2008 to 64 in 2013 — a decline of 84 percent.
“During the budget crunches we’ve experienced, typically the first place that gets cut is fire prevention,” Fire Chief Curt Bittle said by phone last week. “I get it and I understand it.
“It’s a lot easier to count firefighters on a truck at a scene.”
But it “just isn’t realistic” to hire new staff right now, Bittle said. The city doesn’t have the funds to boost the budget of any department, he said. So he will dedicate more of the department’s 21 full-time staffers’ time to prevention. Theusch will spend two days each week doing inspections and firefighters will contribute, as well.
“We’ve adjusted how we do business …” Bittle said, “and we’re slowly creeping back up to that pre-2009 level.”
Blooming Grounds Coffee House, next door to the Islamic Center, suffered smoke and water damage after that fire, reopening nine months later. Its owner, Amy Jo Marks, said the number of fires in recent months is “odd.”
“One: OK. Two: coincidence, maybe,” she said. “Three: What’s going on?”
Older buildings in Winona’s downtown district are “not less safe or more prone to catching on fire,” Bruce West, state fire marshal, said by e-mail. “When a larger or older building starts on fire, it tends to draw more attention because the city is losing a part of its history or a noticeable building in its downtown.
“These fires are also larger because of the building’s size and fuel load.”
Mayor Peterson praised the Fire Department for containing the big blazes. It’s remarkable, he said, that there were no injuries or fatalities.
But Peterson, who is also director of the Winona County Historical Society, said that because of his passion for historic buildings, “it’s just painful when I see these buildings burn.”
After going inside the site of the most recent fire at 151 E. 3rd Street — home to the Mason Jar bar and, above it, apartments — Peterson says he is optimistic that the building will be saved. The KidSport building, too, “ has not been torn down yet.” And the Islamic Center was a one-story building sandwiched by two-story structures. Peterson hopes an infill project will take place there.
“Three buildings are gone, for sure,” he said. “But in the end, our downtown may be better.”