An early morning fire which destroyed a St. Marys grain elevator and a subsequent blaze two days later were both set intentionally, according to the Pottawatomie County fire supervisor.
Bruce Brazzle said Monday morning that both St. Marys fires have been classified as arson and that two “persons of interest” have been developed in the incidents. The first was to be interviewed by law enforcement and fire officials Monday afternoon and the second remains at-large, Brazzle said.
Firefighters responded to a structure fire shortly after 10:30 p.m. Sunday, November 25, at an unoccupied residence at 211 Sixth St., St. Marys, about a block south of the grain elevator fire at 717 W. Bertrand (U.S. Highway 24) the morning of November 23.
“We’re hoping to tie the two fires together,” Brazzle said Monday, noting that both the Pottawatomie Sheriff’s Department and the Kansas State Fire Marshal were aiding his office in the investigation.
Seven area fire departments responded to the November 23 blaze, which destroyed a grain elevator and threatened much of downtown St. Marys. The grain elevator was owned by Nemaha County Co-op and was in the process of being razed.
“If the wind had come up an hour earlier, we’d have lost a whole city block,” Brazzle said. “As it was, we almost did anyway.”
Chris Trudo, Pott County Emergency Management director, said the elevator fire spewed two and three-inch fire brands (burning chunks of wood) three and four blocks away.
“That’s the biggest I’ve ever seen in 30 years,” Trudo said. Brazzle agreed.
One downtown business did ignite from a flying ember, but the fire was quickly extinguished, Brazzle said.
The heat from the elevator fire was intensified due to the type of building construction, as well as grain dust still present in the aging structure, Brazzle said.
To add strength, two-by-six planks were used in the original construction and were affixed horizontally rather than vertically.
“There was a tremendous amount of fuel, and with all the grain dust in there it was just like an accelerant,” Brazzle said.
The extreme heat from the fire caused damage to surrounding buildings, including the Co-op’s main office, four grain storage bins, and roofs of every building in the first block of the downtown business area.
Shingles on the roof of the Wamego Telecommunications facility across the street melted from the heat, as did Plexiglas windows in a neighboring shop building.
Equipment belonging to the St. Marys Fire Department sustained damage from the radiant heat, and the Union Pacific Railroad tracks just north of the elevator were closed until they could be inspected for damage.
Flames from the blaze leapt 50 or 60 feet above the 100-foot structure and could be seen from Wamego, 12 miles to the west, according to Trudo.
The elevator fire was first reported at 1:59 p.m., when volunteer firefighters from St. Marys, Rossville and Emmett were summoned by the first alarm. Four other departments––Wamego, Onaga, District 10 (St. George) and Louisville––were summoned by a second alarm.
U.S. Highway 24 through downtown St. Marys was closed down for about five hours. The fire was brought under control at about 6 a.m.