Flames licked at nearby trees and smoke poured from a more than century-old home as it burned to the ground Saturday at Fort Atkinson State Historical Park.
Only minutes before, Fort Calhoun firefighters were using the house for training, an opportunity they only get once or twice a year, Fire Chief Dan Mallory said.
“This is real life. We're using material in there that you would typically find in a house. It's about as real as it can get,” he said.
Firefighters were able to attempt interior attacks much like they would on a “live” fire.
“It's some of the best opportunity we get to do this,” Mallory said.
The house, likely 125 years old, offered the firefighters a look at a different type of structure than today's construction. The house had a balloon frame with no fire stops.
“The fire is in the middle section, but we see smoke coming out the end here because there are no fire stops,” Mallory said. “The fire will travel throughout the entire structure.”
One firefighter got an experience that most hope they never will. He became disoriented while in the house and couldn't find his way out. A safety officer guided him through a window at the front of the house to escape.
“It's understandable to get kind of turned around. Even those of us with experience, it's easy to get turned around,” said Mallory, who is also an Omaha firefighter. “You can't see your hand in front of your face and it's hot with thick black smoke. It's easy to lose track of where you are.”
Mallory said he and the other officers used that incident as a teaching moment.
“That kind of puts it into perspective as far as this is serious, this is real world. Even though it's training, it's as realistic as it gets,” Mallory said. “It wakes everybody up that this stuff can happen even on a training where it's essentially controlled.”
Burning a home so near a historical structure could have proved to be a challenge. Fortunately, for the firefighters, the wind carried the smoke and flames in the opposite direction of the fort.
“We're watching what is down wind to make sure it doesn't catch fire,” Mallory said.
Fort Atkinson Park Superintendent Jason Grof said the house had fallen into disrepair, leading to its demise.
“It was in bad condition,” he said.
Among those watching the practice burn, was John Slader, Grof's predecessor. Slader lived in the house for more than 20 years. He moved in 2011.
Watching the structure burn was sad for Slader, but he was also realistic.
“There's some melancholy on it, but not a lot,” he said. “It had to happen one way or the other.”
Bob Hanover, assistant division administrator for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission (NGPC) said the house was unsafe. The Nebraska State Historic Preservation Office agreed it should come down.
“Though this house is historic and it was on site, it's not relevant to the era of the fort,” Hanover said.
The house is believed to have been built in 1893 by Austin Beales, a Civil War veteran. He purchased the property in 1886. Beales died in 1912; his wife, Hannah died in 1944 at age 94. The house and property stayed in the family until it was sold to the state for development of the park in 1962.
Hanover said the NPGC is exploring public-private opportunities at Fort Atkinson and the property where the house was located could be utilized.
“What path that's going to take, we're not really sure yet, but we're going to look at some opportunities to maybe explore some non-traditional activities, where everything here has always been focused on historical re-enactments and historical events,” Hanover said. “Maybe with a little buffer between here and the fort with the space, we can try something that we haven't tried before to fill a need within the community and to let the park offer some other opportunities for people to enjoy this setting.”