YANKEE SPRINGS TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — The old schoolhouse at Shaw Lake and Yankee Springs caught fire about 4 p.m. Tuesday.
Twenty hours later, it was still burning — piece by piece and layer by layer.
Robert Strawser’s parents owned the home for about 25 years. They escaped they fire unharmed.
“They were taking a nap, heard the fire alarms going off and my mom woke up and there was a bunch of smoke,” said Strawser, who said he understands the dilemma faced by firefighters.
“It could collapse at any time. Just like that,” said Thornapple Emergency Services Chief David Middleton Wednesday as he watched from his SUV and the fired burned and a portion of the home collapsed.
It’s hard to tell a firefighter to let something burn.
“It can be,” Middleton said. “But it’s the safest thing for us to do today.”
“In this weather, and the heat, the cold and the type of building that is, the way it was built, there’s just no other alternative than to let it go to the ground,” he continued.
Old schoolhouses were built to last. Heavy beams held the roof up. Wood, plaster and other heavy materials made it solid — and dangerous when it began to burn.
Its balloon construction, typical of older buildings, didn’t have the fire stops that modern code requires, allowing the flames to get inside the walls and spread rapidly.
Firefighters went inside when they arrived Tuesday afternoon. But conditions went from bad to worse and they were ordered out.
“On an old building like this, you’ve got collapse dangers. You’ve got fire in the wall,” the chief said. “There’s fire throughout the walls, and you really surround yourself with the fire. The guys that are in there- It’s a killer.”
There were dangers on the outside, as well. The water used to fight the fire created sheets of ice early on. Firefighters had to be careful walking around. And the tall brick chimneys could fall at any time. They also considered the dangers to the driving public.
“This is going to take 100,000 gallons of water at 3,000 gallons at a time, tankers running up and down the road, on these icy road,” Chief Middelton said.
So they let it burn.
“I feel terrible for the folks that lost their possessions, but we did the right thing in not getting somebody hurt last night,” Middleton said.
The potential for tragedy involving firefighters outweighed the frustration of letting it burn.
“That’s something you never want to do. Knock on somebody’s door and tell them their husband or wife or father or son or whomever isn’t coming home because we tried to save a building that didn’t have a human life in it,” Middleton said.