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Teamwork tames blaze

Rushmore firefighter Ken Feeken hoses down smoldering debris uncovered by the Reker Construction backhoe Friday afternoon at the site of Thursday's Rushmore elevator grain storage facility fire in Rushmore. Reker construction is located in Adrian.

RUSHMORE -- More than 300,000 bushels of space is gone at the United Farmers Co-op (UFC) Elevator in Rushmore, but UFC General Manager Irvin Clubine said the intent is to rebuild as soon as possible.

The fire that started Thursday afternoon at the elevator brought in nine fire departments and over 100 people, but the fire fighting didn't stop there. Several firefighters from Rushmore worked split shifts throughout the night to monitor for flare-ups, which did occur.

Friday, Rushmore Fire Department members were still on the scene and continued to spray water on a smoldering structure buried under tons of corn. Backhoes and other construction equipment dug into the corn, pulling the pile down so the firefighters could get at the burning wood and grain.

"I haven't been home yet," said location manager Mike Miller. "I came at 5:30 a.m. (Thursday) and started spraying, then after the fire I stayed with the fire fighters here all night."

Clubine said they still don't know what happened to cause the fire.

"There was no one in the facility," he explained. "The crew was working in the conveyor."

One steel tank is still useable, but a bin and a dryer will have to be replaced. A 400,000 bushel tank was being put up, so with the loss of space from the fire, Clubine said there are "about back to being even."

"Once we get everything cleaned up we will evaluate what can be put back in place," he said. "But can it be done by fall? I don't know. It is just too early in the game."

His big concern right now, Clubine said, is taking care of the farmers.

"We want to do what is right for the members in Rushmore," he added.

Miller, who stood watching the firefighters Friday afternoon, said he appreciated their efforts.

"They are doing a wonderful job," he remarked.

Rushmore Fire Chief Larry Lupkes said there were at least 100 people at the scene Thursday, between mutual aid personnel, farmers hauling water, emergency management and Red Cross.

But everyone worked together well, with little of the confusion and chaos that could be expected from so many people at one scene.

"I thought that went really good," he commented, leaning up against a fire truck. "I was well impressed with how everyone worked together."

Different departments set up in different areas, using their own equipment.

"We had a lot of departments with hoses aiming into the fire," Lupkes said.

The heat from the blaze was so intense that the firefighters could not get close enough to the fire at first.

"They couldn't get close enough for the water to reach," Lupkes explained. "It would steam off."

It was only after the burning structure collapsed that firefighters could move in with water hoses.

The standing bins shrunk in at the hottest points, and as they cooled off overnight, the firefighters on duty heard the dents pop out of the structures.

"The heat was pretty bad," Lupkes commented. "A garage roof started melting, the concession stand got hot, a couple of houses got hot."

The garage roof, covered with a tarp, was about 100 yards upwind of the fire, but the tarp is melted away in spots.

The extreme heat of the fire, coupled with the firefighters running around in 50 pounds of turnout gear, was a perfect recipe for heat exhaustion, but Lupkes said only two firefighters got overheated.

"We cooled them down and they turned out to be OK," he said.

Not only was there a need for water to fight the fire, keeping the personnel hydrated was a challenge -- one the residents of Rushmore rallied to take on.

Rushmore firefighter Lynette Wenzel said her father and stepmother, who own the local café, brought over cases of water and ice, as did the owners of PDs Tavern. Some residents had coolers full of ice and bottled water sitting out for the fire fighters to grab. Wenzel said the assistant chief's wife delivered sandwiches and chips to the scene later that evening, and another woman, Bonnie Bosma, brought coffee out to the fire fighters around 4 a.m.

"It takes a tragedy like this to see how much the community comes together to help out," Wenzel commented. "How everybody came together was awesome."

As if the elevator fire wasn't enough, Rushmore Rescue was called out twice overnight, but the exhausted volunteers headed out both times.

Friday morning, the firefighters had to stop and clear the train tracks so a train could get through on the Nobles-Rock line. Lupkes had called to make sure the train wasn't running during the worst part of the blaze Thursday, but by Friday morning, the tracks had to be cleared.

"We had to move all the tin back and level off the corn so it could get through," Wenzel stated. "Then we all stood by and watched to make sure the train wouldn't get derailed by corn."