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Madison Fire Department
Committed to recruiting and retaining a qualified, diverse, inclusive and safe fire workforce.

The Fires

Although there have been a lot of fires over the history of the Madison Fire department that are very noteworthy, the following select few from each time period have been selected for the website. For a more complete listing of historical fires we urge visitors to find a copy of the Capital City Courage which has a much more comprehensive list of historical fires, as well as amazing photographs to look at.

1855, 1856, & 1857 Fires

The City's first major fire was October 28, 1855 when the planning mill and factory of Campbell, Hogg & Welch and another small dwelling owned by a Mr. McConnell were destroyed. Another destructive fire occurred March 2, 1856 on Webster Street. It threatened the City's main business district but by the efforts of citizens the fire was contained in the buildings housing Cronen's Saloon, Noyes' Shoe Store, and Bradley's Drug Store. On June 6, 1857, all the buildings on Washington Avenue from the corner of Webster Street up to Bruen's block were totally destroyed by fire. The newspaper reported, "The firemen were on the ground, and worked as only firemen work, but in consequence of the lack of water, their exertions were in great manner wasted. However, but for them, the best portion of the city would assuredly have been burned up."

1900 - 1930s Fires

Capitol Burns - A fire on February 27, 1904 destroyed the State Capitol building. The flame from a gas jet in a cloak room on the second floor caused the fire which began around 2:45 am. By noon it was burning out of control. The disaster destroyed a number of historical gems; possibly the most sentimental loss of the 20 hour blaze was the preserved body of "Old Abe" the famed eagle mascot of Wisconsin's Eighth Regiment in the Civil War. Firefighters from Janesville and Milwaukee arrived by train to aid in battling the blaze. The newspaper reported that Chief Bernard was injured early in the fire and the north wing was saved by "the heroic work of Jay H. Snell and his brave fellows." Losses for the uninsured building were estimated at $800,000 to $1 million. Construction of the present Capitol began in 1906 and was completed in July of 1917 at a cost of over $7.2 million.

J. H. Findorff & Son Planing Mill Fire - On May 13, 1909, a destructive fire at the four-story J. H. Findorff Planing Mill was considered a major threat to the City. Losses were estimated at $200,000 and included the nearly completed millwork for portions of the new Capitol building. The fire threatened two nearby fuel companies and records show that over 20 other buildings caught fire from flying sparks.

Main Hall Fire - October 10, 1916, a large number of students worked with firefighters to bring a blaze at Main (later named Bascom) Hall on the University of Wisconsin (UW) campus under control. The fire was confined to the ornate dome which was destroyed and never replaced. Some accounts suggest that rainwater which had accumulated in the base of the dome on top of the UW's Main Hall saved the building from total destruction as efforts were hampered by a lackof water pressure.

Parkway Theater Fire - On October 17, 1925, the roof of the Parkway Theater on West Mifflin Street collapsed as fire swept through the movie house. Several people were overcome by smoke and a panicked crowd of 1,000 reportedly stampeded. All apparatus was used at the fire. An estimated 20,000 spectators were on hand due to UW Homecoming celebrations. Firefighters could be seen jumping from the roof several times as portions gave way beneath them. Chief Heyl described their efforts as "the most energetic battle against fire" in his memory stating that it was the most threatening fire he had fought. Said Heyl: "I thought the entire block was going...I never saw a fire go so quickly."

Mary Ann Bake Shop - On June 10, 1939, Judson H. Holocomb and Adolph N. Habich were attacking a basement fire from the main floor stairway at the Mary Ann Bake Shop, 602 South Park Street, when the floor collapsed. The collapse was blamed on a 15-ton bakery oven which had improperly overloaded the floor along with a weakening of the floor supports due to the fire below. The men were crushed by the oven as they toppled with it into the basement. They were the first Madison firefighters to die in the line of duty. Because accounts of the incident varied, details were provided in a statement by the Police and Fire Commission. The statement concluded: "We are satisfied that the deployment of the men...was proper and necessary and that no practical safety measures were neglected. At any fire the consideration of personal safety always conflicts with the necessity of reaching the fire. This tragedy could not have been foreseen by the men and demonstrates the hazards which constantly confront the Department."

1940 - 1960s Fires

Winter of 1946 - Three major fires fought in the bitter cold of winter made 1946 a memorable year. First came the Nuss Implement Fire; then the Garver's Supply fire; and finally the Heidelberg-Hofbrau fire. In the Garver's Feed and Supply fire, a wing of the building leased to six other businesses burned with explosions of stored oils, anti-freeze, and liquor hampering efforts to put out the blaze. The Heidelberg-Hofbrau fire was a four-alarm fire that damaged the Heidelberg-Hofbrau Restaurant, Rennebohm Drug and The Hub Clothing Store on West Mifflin Street. Three firefighters and one policeman were hospitalized and losses were estimated at $500,000. Several times the fire was brought under control only to be set off again by explosions of the large quantities of stored liquors. Chief Page said, "I believe to the best of my knowledge, the Hofbrau fire was the most hazardous and serious threat to the safety of our high hazard district that Madison has ever seen."

Bassett Street Explosions - Failure of a regulating valve allowed natural gas to rush at high pressure into low pressure valves causing explosions which rocked the Bassett Street area. Five buildings were destroyed and two people killed. Fed by the gas, flames erupted continuously, leaping through cracks in the street to surround firefighters as they positioned themselves to attack the fires. A witness compared the perilous scene to "an artist's picture of hell". Bassett street losses were expected to exceed $1 million. A proud Chie Page said of the incident, it was "probably the most disastrous conflagration that the City of Madison has ever experienced. The esprit de corps and magnificent courage demonstrated by the officers and men of the Department, as well as the Police Department, Water Department, and other City and County units is worthy of the highest commendation." The bravery and performance of the firefighters drew praise from a grateful city. One Bassett Street resident commented, "This city should get down on its knees and thank God that we've got a fire department like that."

State Street Fire - A fire began at the El-Kismet Restaurant, 450 State Street, and spread to six adjacent businesses. Eight additional businesses and a rooming lodge were damaged by smoke and water causing an estimated $500,000 in damages. After 12 hours, and with the fire under control, Chief Page reported, it "was the largest conflagration that this City has experienced since the Bassett Street explosion...Great credit must be given to the officers and men of this Department, who during the most adverse of conditions, successfully brought this major fire under control."

1970 - 1990s Fires

Math Research Building Explosion - On August 24, 1970, at 3:42 am an unidentified caller warned police dispatcher: "Hey pig. There's a bomb in the Math Research Building on University campus. Clear the building." Within two minutes a blast, heard over 30 miles away, tore the building apart killing a 33-year old graduate student. Four fire companies responded but only minor fires followed the blast. Two hours after the explosion, firefighters found another student buried alive under the debris. Losses were estimated at $2 million. Over the preceding 12 months, at least 25 incidents of "protest" firebombings and arson had occurred.

Arbor Drive Apartment Building Fire - On April 1, 1978, a 32-unit apartment building at 2602 Arbor Drive "literally blew up" when fire caused temperatures inside 75 percent of the aluminum coated building to reach 1,000 degrees. The spectacular blaze was so hot it scorched and melted MFD equipment. Over 75 firefighters battled the five-alarm fire which caused $1 million in damages.

Packers Avenue Warehouses Fire - On May 6, 1981, a cutting torch accident ignited a warehouse leased to Oscar Mayer (1718 Holmberg Street) and spread to a second building housing Badger Sheet Metal (1717 Nelson Street). Strong Winds worked against the efforts to control the blaze. A resin stored in the Oscar Mayer building caused additional problems including heavy, toxic smoke. Losses due to the destruction of the "Packers Avenue warehouses" were estimated at $1 million.

West Gorham Street Fire - On January 8, 1982, a fire destroyed the Lysistrata Restaurant, Flour Box Bakery and Confectionary, Jewels, The Living Room, and a sign painting shop at the corner of North Broom and West Gorham Streets. Firefighters were hampered by a collapsing roof and sub-zero temperatures which caused water to freeze as it poured into the streets creating a 4-inch coating of ice. Ice also slowed the efforts of fire/arson investigators who concluded the blaze was intentionally set. Losses were estimated at $500,000.

Don the Muffler Man Fire - On November 30, 1990, a welding torch accidentally started a blaze at Don the Muffler Man, 2208 University Avenue. Equipment, 20 cars, and a large portion of the building were destroyed in the $1 million blaze. Burning fuels, tires, cleaning solvents, and oxygen and acetylene tanks caused explosions and such intense heat that equipment could not be positioned close to the building. Firefighters who moved in between the muffler shop and the neighboring Octopus Car Wash were credited with preventing the flames from spreading to the car wash.

Central Storage & Warehouse Fire - On May 3, 1991, at 3:31 pm, the MFD responded to a fire at the Central Storage & Warehouse Company, 4309 Cottage Grove Road. The complex, a cold storage facility consisting of five buildings totaling nearly 500,000 square feet, contained approximately 50 million pounds of food products. Upon arrival to the scene flames were already shooting high into the sky and a second alarm was requested. The fire was originally limited to one building as firefighters attacked it from all sides. Just as ten firefighters and two apparatus were moved from the east side of the structure, the wall collapsed on their previous position. The fire, fueled by the stored butter, lard, and cheese, continued to gain momentum; water had little effect on it. The melted food products caused additional problems as they mixed with water and flowed away from the building towards Starkweather Creek. Appropriate environmental agencies were called in to assist in minimizing the damage to the environment. By 6:00 pm the fire had spread to a second building and a third alarm was made. With 70 firefighters at the scene, off-duty personnel were called into man vacated stations. Additional off-duty personnel were requested to report to the staging area of Station No. 5. At 11:00 pm the second building collapsed. At midnight, with the fire threatening the facility's anhydrous ammonia tanks, an evacuation of approximately 3,000 residents within a 1/2 mile radius was ordered. By 3:30 am the fire had been pushed back from the area of the ammonia tanks and the evacuation was changed to an advisory. At noon, the MFD requested mutual aid (fifty volunteers responded) from surrounding communities to give MFD firefighters a short break to recover. On May 5 at 10:00 am, the blaze was declared "under control", but continued to smolder under tons of rubble. By 6:00 pm the fire was down-graded to a "fire watch" with 12 firefighters on the scene to extinguish hot spots as construction crews cleared away wreckage. On May 7, fire/arson investigators were able to determine the fire was accidental and that the origin of the fire to be in and around a battery propelled forklift. On May 11, eight days after the start of the fire, the fire was declared "officially out". Losses were estimated at $7.5 million in property damages, $70 million in contents, and nearly $1 million in clean-up costs. This blaze was without argument the largest and most difficult fire the MFD has ever fought.