Monday, August 13th, 2007
By Margie Wuebker
Fire destroys historic grain elevator in Rockford area
  ROCKFORD - Fire destroyed a landmark grain elevator along Tama Road Saturday night with flames visible as far away as Ohio City, Mendon and St. Marys.
"The thing was fully engulfed before we arrived," longtime Rockford Fire Chief Ralph Rhoades told The Daily Standard. "We could see it and so did a lot of other people."
Neighbors reportedly spotted the blaze around 7 p.m. and called 911. At least seven additional calls were logged, according to Rhoades.
Mutual aid calls quickly went out to fire departments in Chattanooga, Celina, Ohio City, Mendon and Coldwater. They responded with manpower, engines and tankers. Rhoades estimated at least 50 firefighters were on the scene at the height of the blaze.
Tankers hauled water from a pond two miles away in relay fashion. An estimated 100,000 gallons were used to keep the flames from damaging two nearby silos - one filled with wheat and the other soybeans - or reaching a large propane tank. By comparison, a house fire generally requires 5,000 to 10,000 gallons of water. Despite dry weather conditions, the pond supplied all the water needed but the heavy use drew it down about five inches.
"We kept spraying water on the propane tank to keep it from exploding," the chief said. "The men did a good job preventing further damage."
Firefighters had problems "knocking down" the blaze since the elevator has been added onto several times. Flames quickly raced through the varying roof lines and complicated the task at hand.
Several bad explosions rocked the area but fortunately no one was injured. One was caused by an air compressor blowing up and the other by a propane tank detonating on a forklift. Firefighters have not determined the cause of another blast.
In addition to the elevator, two trailers used for storage also caught fire with the material inside feeding the flames. One contained cardboard, the other paper bags.
Two excavating companies brought heavy equipment to the scene to tear apart what remained of the structures. Fire hoses quicked focused on the revealed trouble spots.
Firefighters remained on the scene 51/2 hours and battled hot, humid weather as well as flames. With high humidity levels and temperatures soaring toward 90 degrees, rest periods were set up so the men could remove their heavy turnout gear if only for a little while.
Rockford firefighters returned to the scene at 4742 Tama Road shortly after 9:30 a.m. Sunday when the blaze apparently rekindled. The last unit headed back to station after three hours.
"We put the fire out," Rhoades said. "At that point more damage was not a concern. We didn't want to take the chance of having the fire spread."
Thomas Burtch, co-owner of the family business, indicated the destroyed building was 80 to 90 years old. Family members purchased the elevator back in 1979 with sons Mike and Ed Burtch currently managing the operation.
"The building had stood there a long time," Thomas Burtch said. "It remains to be seen what the next step will be."
The cause of the blaze and the amount of damage has not been determined as yet. The family has insurance coverage.
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