Cadillac (MI) Fire Department Captain Randy Norman said he knew better than to pump water into the external sprinkler connection for the historic Mitchell-Bentley factory building when it caught fire.
Anything resembling a sprinkler system had long since been stripped out of the derelict structure. Likewise, none of the private fire hydrants surrounding the cavernous factory actually worked.
“It was constantly being broken into by homeless people,” Norman said. “They would set fires in barrels or even on the floor.”
Not that Norman even got the chance to charge the non-existent sprinklers. Firefighters arrived to find what was originally built in the late 1800s as the largest wood flooring factory in the world burning from every window and beginning to collapse.
“We brought everything we could – the engines, the tower, everything – when we got the alarm,” Norman said. “We knew if this one ever caught fire, it would be a defensive fire from the start.”
Like the luxury car, the town of Cadillac, population 10,270, is named for French explorer Antoine Laumet de La Mothe, sieur de Cadillac. When its logging industry died out, the town developed other uses for the factory. It housed manufacturing for pleasure boats in the 1960s and, finally, vinyl car seats in the 1980s.
However, for the last 20 years the estimated 200,000 square foot structure sat empty. Wexford County sold it to the present owner for the princely sum of $10, Norman said.
“It was falling down,” he said. “The brick face was coming off the structure and there were holes in the roof. It was not a good building.”
Local fire codes allowed shutting off the sprinkler system if the building was to remain unoccupied, Norman said.
At 10:39 a.m., Oct. 27, 2013, firefighters received a report that someone had spotted flames in the vacant structure. Norman was on duty that night and caught the biggest fire of his 31-year career in Cadillac.
“We asked what side of the building the fire was on,” Norman said. “The police had rolled up on the north side of the building first so they said, ‘Come to the north side.’”
Even though the fire station was only half a mile from the fire, the north side of the two-story building was already collapsing when firefighters arrived, he said.
“A stiff wind was blowing out of the southwest,” Norman said. “The smoke was rolling over the top of us. I decided we needed to move to the front of the building on the south side.”
Firefighters set up Cadillac’s 105-foot aerial platform and an aerial device from Haring Township four miles north that Norman called even before arriving on the scene.
“All we could do is surround and drown,” he said. “We put the aerials up and pumped as much as we could to them. Then we started running hand lines off as well.”
To feed those lines meant using long stretches of large diameter hose. Two hoses ran 1,100 feet to the nearest source and a third line ran 1,400 feet, Norman said. Firefighters eventually used between 600,000 to 650,000 gallons of water. Despite the elevated streams, the south side of the building was soon collapsing as well.
“The building was mostly wood inside but there were some steel trusses in one portion of it,” Norman said.
The only break that firefighters caught was damp weather that helped to extinguish the flying embers.
“They were landing 10 to 15 blocks away, blowing right toward the town,” Norman said.
At 2 a.m., the Haring Township aerial developed a mechanical issue that put it out of action.
“They blew an air filter,” Norman said. “We called the fire department in McBain, about 10 miles away, and they brought their platform. We set them up in the back of the building.”
Wind continued to be a problem. In the morning hours it shifted, again bringing the smoke over the top of the firefighters. “ At least by that time we had the fire about 90 percent knocked down,” Norman said.
By dawn, firefighters were ready for a break. A logistics issue gave them the opportunity to take one.
“We had our five-inch stretched across the train tracks on the south side of the building,” Norman said. “A train was due through at 8 a.m., so we had to break down the line during that period. The fire was pretty well knocked down. It was just hiding a few hot spots.”
At 9 a.m., Norman requested help from Big Rapids, a city 45 miles to the south. Another aerial soon arrived on scene. By 12:30 p.m., Norman was ready to suspend all operations save for a fire watch. By that time, only the west side of the building, protected by a fire wall, remained standing.
Unfortunately, tons of debris made many of the remaining hot spots unreachable. Cadillac firefighters spent much of the following week returning to the scene to deal with spot fires as they broke out.
Norman said Cadillac had been lucky in the past regarding the fire risk from large derelict structures.
“We had an old grainery downtown that we always knew would be a problem if it went up,” Norman said. “They took it down three years ago to put up a bank.”
Likewise, a vacant lumber yard adjacent to a residential area and a one-time cable factory on the town’s north side were replaced by new development in the past decade.
To close the books on the great Mitchell-Bentley fire of 2013, fire officials brought in a cadaver dog for a final inspection of the site.
“There was a homeless population in and out of there,” Norman said. “We just want to make sure.”