Several factors fall into place to prevent fire at Steel Cow from being much worse


Called into service ... The aerial ladder truck from the Decorah Fire Department was called in by Waukon fire officials as an early precautionary measure in the Tuesday, April 6 fire at Steel Cow on Allamakee Street in Waukon. As evident in the photo above, the truck was put to use in accessing the roof of the building, where firefighters breached a hole in the northeast corner to make sure no flames or fire remnants had made their way to the roof.

Back attack ... The northeast interior corner toward the back of the Steel Cow building on Allamakee Street in Waukon is where fire officials have reported as the area of origin of the Tuesday, April 6 fire in the building. Although smoke can be seen in the photo above billowing out of upper floor windows in the rear of the building, Waukon fire officials say the flames were contained to the main floor near the back of the building, where the fire started, thanks to a number of positives that came into play and prevented the fire from being much worse, such as early detection and recognition of the fire location, along with fire mitigation measures implemented in the building’s remodeling.

If there can ever be a consideration of feeling fortunate when experiencing a building fire, those involved in a Tuesday, April 6 blaze that broke out at Steel Cow on Allamakee Street in Waukon would likely consider themselves among those fortunate ranks.

Business and building owners Josh and Val Miller of Waukon note the most fortunate aspect of the incident was that no injuries were suffered, as no one was in the building at the time of the fire and crews worked quickly and efficiently to extinguish the blaze. Aside from the fire having to happen at all, the fortuitous momentum of the fire damage being as limited as it was could also be carried over into how the event unfolded from the very beginning - and even prior to it happening at all.

The Millers note that the fire was called in quickly by local attorney Jim Garrett, as he noticed a strong smoke presence filtering into his office located right next to the Steel Cow building, to the north. The couple was also made aware that Robert Campbell - son-in-law of the owner of the adjacent building where Garrett’s law office is located, John Kerndt, and also a former chief of the Waukon Fire Department - arrived at the scene very early on and sprayed a fire extinguisher from the vehicle of responding Waukon Police Chief Paul Wagner into a back window that had been blown out by the early flames, helping slow the blaze down initially.

“A giant thank you goes to Jim Garrett for calling the fire in so quickly and to Bob Campbell for his quick thinking,” Val Miller noted in a social media post following the fire. “Without you guys and the fire departments and police departments, we would not still have a building.”

Waukon Fire Chief Dave Martin agrees there were many positives that all fell into place that prevented the fire from being so much worse than it was.

“It all came together pretty well, starting with the early call from the neighboring building,” he said. “Paul Wagner gave us a great early assessment when he first arrived on scene, and I was monitoring that radio traffic as I was heading toward my vehicle. Before we even got there we had a good 360 (degree) perspective on what was going on and where to begin.”

Martin and his volunteer crew also appreciate the efforts of local law enforcement, the City of Waukon Street Department and local Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT) staff for helping close the area off to traffic. “That was important in being able to keep things under control,” he said. “That gave us the room to get the necessary equipment in there and just focus on the job we needed to get done, so we appreciate all their assistance with that.”

Martin also gave an abundance of credit to the Millers for some fire mitigation measures implemented within their earlier remodeling process of the building. “They did it right,” Chief Martin noted. “They used fire braces and steel studs in the walls, so that really stunted the fire’s ability to climb the walls and that was obviously a big help. I know Josh used to serve on a fire department before he came to Waukon, so his knowledge and experience there obviously played a role in how he approached things with the remodel, and that really paid dividends.”

“Growing up in construction and being on a fire department for several years provided me with some valuable experience in knowing how we wanted to renovate that building,” Josh Miller further explained. “I wanted it to be pretty fire-tight so that if something like this ever did happen, we at least had a chance to try and slow it down some.”

The assistance from the Decorah Fire Department with its aerial ladder truck was also much appreciated, although Chief Martin says he’s glad that unit did not have to be more fully utilized. Still, the aerial truck allowed quick and convenient access to the roof, where the situation could be further assessed to make sure nothing further had developed in the upper level of the building.

“With a three-story structure like that with adjacent buildings so close, we’re almost always going to make that call - those three-story buildings like that pose an added risk all on their own,” Chief Martin said of Decorah’s involvement. “We had them access the roof and ultimately cut a hole in the back northeast corner (of the roof) just to make sure there was nothing going on up in there. There were no flames, but the thermal imager still gave a reading of 113 degrees.”

And ultimately, Chief Martin gave members of his own volunteer crew strong accolades for their quick, efficient and effective response. “With the good amount of early information we got, we made sure we had everything we needed and had a good plan in place, knowing that once we breached the front door the fire would have everything it needed to take off,” he explained. “Someone (Campbell, it was later revealed) hit it initially with a fire extinguisher through a back window the fire had blown out, so that helped, but once we got inside, our guys hit it hard and knocked it down very quickly. I don’t think we used even 500 gallons of water. The guys did a great job; it was a good save.”

Although the exact cause of the fire is still being pinpointed by the various agencies and entities involved in that process, it is known that the fire started in that northeast corner of the building’s main floor in the area where the Steel Cow business has its commercial printers used in making the canvas prints of Val Miller’s painted creations. It was that main floor area that suffered the greatest amount of damage, as that is the level of the building the flames were contained to. That main level and the lower basement level of the building where lumber is stored and worked into the canvas print frames both suffered the most water damage, although that damage was minimal due to the quick dousing of the blaze.

All four floors of the building sustained heavy smoke damage, as the “fire-tight” renovation that helped prevent the spread of the flames can also keep the smoke mostly contained within the structure itself. That’s a trade-off that most anyone would accept in such a situation.

“The building remains structurally sound - the flames were contained mainly to one area,” Josh shared. “We’ve started the mitigation and demolition process, and that clean-up effort is going to take some time, but we fully intend to be back in this same building and are thankful to be able to do so.”

In the ensuing several days since the Tuesday fire, the Millers have been wading through the overall recovery process, not only the emotional and psychological recovery from experiencing the event but also the demands of the physical recovery within the building and the insurance process. Josh says they are just beginning the process of determining what may or may not be salvageable from inside the building, an effort he also notes “will take a long time.”

Meanwhile, the Millers are also working to keep their thriving e-commerce art business moving ahead, as they want to continue to be able to serve their customers as best as they possibly can, even through their recovery process. “We want to continue to take and fill online orders, and we’re beginning the process of figuring out a temporary space from which to do that because we fully intend to return to our building but want to continue to serve our customer base in the meantime,” Josh noted.

For now, the couple remains grateful for the opportunity to be able to fully recover from such an event, and all the support they have received since it happened, noting as such in a final social media post statement:

“It could have been so very much worse, and for that we are so grateful, and it’s just amazing how many people showed up when we needed help. We are blessed to live in a loving community in rural Iowa and we thank you all for your love and support.”

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