ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
The Kansas thunderstorm that brought a welcomed “million-dollar rain” to parched fields in the area last Wednesday night also did around $1 million in fire damage when a lightning bolt struck a city maintenance shed.
The lightning strike was witnessed by a member of the crew working on nearby U.S. Highway 56, officials said.
Lynn Penner, whose home is located lives about 200 yards northeast of the maintenance area, called in the fire at 9:04 p.m., according to Fire Chief Wayne Lowry.
City Administrator Steven Garrett said the dollar amount of the damage would not be known for sure until this Tuesday-at the earliest.
“I think our insurance is going to cover quite a bit of the loss,” Garrett said. “But we don’t know what that is yet because the insurance company wants to perform an inventory specifically for that building.”
Lost in the blaze were three service trucks and considerable supplies that were housed in the east half of the city’s north building.
Garrett said two of the vehicles, the large and small bucket trucks, were insured. The third vehicle, a 20-year-old digger truck, was not insured because of its age.
“We have good insurance,” Mayor Delores Dalke said Monday. “Of course, there’s always details to be worked out with the adjuster.
“It’s unfortunate that not everything will be covered because the (written) inventory of what was in the building was in the desk that was in the building that burned down.
“We will sustain something of a loss,” she added. “We don’t know how all this is going to work out yet because there are details to be addressed. We do carry insurance on everything that’s insurable.”
As significant as the loss was, it could have been a lot worse if not for the efforts of city employee Gary Penner, who was the first person to see evidence of the fire. Penner removed several pieces of expensive city equipment from the open-front shed adjoining the building that had ignited.
Penner said he and his family had been at the home of his father, Lynn Penner, when they heard the lightning bolt hit. The two men went outside to investigate the noise.
“It was kind of raining and I was looking toward the shop,” Gary Penner said. “I thought it was just a cloud at first, and then I saw it wasn’t a cloud. I yelled to Dad, and he looked and said, ‘Yeah, that’s smoke.’
“So I hopped into the van. About that time, flames started coming out of the top of the building. So I just got my keys and went and opened the gate (to the maintenance area).”
Penner said the Hillsboro Fire Department arrived soon after he did.
“I just started moving some of the vehicles that were in the west part of the shed,” Penner said. “It took me a while to get them out through the smoke, but I finally got them all out.”
Among the equipment Penner removed was a big front-end loader, sewer router, road grater, dump truck and the city’s brand new trash truck.
“The big loader was right against the wall where the fire finally did stop,” Penner said. “The loader was getting warm when I went inside, but it wasn’t bad.”
Smoke was more of a problem than the heat, he added.
“About the last vehicle I got was the little grater,” he said. “I ran in there and started it (but) I couldn’t see the doorway because of the smoke. I started coming out and it flashed lightning just a little bit. I said, ‘Thank you, God. Here I come.
“I just wish I could have gotten one of the trucks out for the electrical department,” he added. “But that was pretty much engulfed in flames.”
Dalke, Garrett and Lowry all called Penner the hero of the hour, but he down-played his role.
“I figure I was just doing my job, what anybody else would have done,” he said.
Penner said Monday he was still feeling the effect of inhaling smoke during the rescue effort.
Garrett said that within hours of the fire, a local business and several surrounding communities called to offer service trucks to temporarily replace the ones destroyed in the fire.
“Herington offered a bucket truck, Elcon (Service, Inc., of Hillsboro) offered a digger truck, and the cities of Peabody and Marion have offered assistance as well,” Garrett said.
“We’re going to stick with that until we figure out exactly what we’re going to do.”
Garrett praised the efforts of local firefighters.
“I was impressed with the professional manner with which the fire department handled the fire,” he said.
Added Dalke: “We’re really happy that nobody got hurt and that the firemen were able to keep it under control so that it did not spread to the building that was adjacent to it.”
Lowry said his local volunteers were on the scene until 3 a.m.
“I’ve got to brag just a little,” he said. “I think my crew did a great job of saving the west half of that building.”