Five-alarm fire guts auto shop in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood

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MILWAUKEE -- Two Milwaukee firefighters were treated for heat exhaustion Tuesday, July 17th while battling a five-alarm fire at Joe's Auto Repair in the city's Riverwest neighborhood. The shop is located on E. Center St. just east of Holton St.

23 engine companies with nine ladder trucks battled the blaze amidst a heat advisory, and temperatures near 100 with a triple-digit heat index.

The fire appears to have started around 9:15 a.m. It began on the first floor of the building inside the auto repair shop and spread quickly through the 25,000 square foot building.

Fire officials say they believe the fire started in the auto shop's garage, possibly in the gas tank of one of the vehicles being serviced.

"Any time you have an auto shop, you have gasoline, you have solvents -- very combustible materials and really, that's all you needed to burn the rest of the building," one fire official said.

Officials began to defensively attack the fire, and try to keep it from spreading to the apartment units. Seven of them filled with smoke, and the auto shop is a total loss. Firefighters say the floor and ceiling of the building collapsed during the fire.

Tenants living in apartments on the east side of the building had to be evacuated. Officials say all inside the building were able to escape safely. Witnesses at the scene told FOX6 News some escaped with only the clothes on their backs. The American Red Cross was on the scene to assist.

With temperatures near 100° at the peak of the fire, smoke, a blazing hot sun, and 75 pounds of gear, some firefighters suffered ill-effects from the heat. Fire officials say the weather, not the fire, was what elevated this incident to five-alarms.

"When I look at that building and the amount of fire in that building, it wasn't a five-alarm. Probably a three-alarm fire. One block in every direction you'll see fire trucks parked with nobody in it. We didn't need the trucks. We needed the people," one fire official said.

While Milwaukee's Fire Department tackled this fire, five suburban departments back-filled the city's fire houses, including Franklin, North Shore, South Milwaukee, Wauwatosa and Oak Creek departments. Those crews were able to respond to other emergencies during the fire.

We Energies crews initially cut power to 4,100 customers in the area, due to the fire. 100 of those customers were still without power as of 3:30 p.m. Tuesday. Power was later restored to the area. 

FOX6 News was told some neighbors were without power for up to six hours.

To help those without power cope with the extreme heat (and no air conditioning) Tuesday afternoon, two Milwaukee County Transit buses were brought in. The Red Cross also delivered ice, water, popsicles and other snacks for neighbors. 

"I've been in the house all day, and I have animals in the house that need my support as well, so I had to make sure they were taken care of as well as my children," neighbor Isabel Hernandez said.

An additional MCTS bus was brought in for firefighters.

A volunteer group called "The Fire Bells" brought in food and drinks for firefighters.

Milwaukee Public Schools says there was a recreation division program operating in the school nearest that fire -- Pierce Elementary School. The program is run in partnership with the Boys and Girls Club. 

Children and staff were moved inside Pierce School to protect them from smoke from the fire.

MPS moved children and staff by bus from Pierce School to Fratney School, a few blocks away.  Buses returned students to Pierce at 4:00 p.m. for their regular dismissal from the Rec program, unless parents opted to pick up their child(ren) from Fratney. 

Boys and Girls Club staff contacted parents with children in the program to let them know everyone is safe and would be moved for the day.

Fire officials say the investigation into the official cause of this fire remains under investigation.

FOX6 News is told there were also several art galleries in the building, along with artist studios. MARN, the Milwaukee Artist Resource Network, has set up a fund requesting donations for those affected by the fire.

Donations are being collected at the Riverwest Public House.

Suggested donations include...
- non-perishable foods
- clothing
- toiletries (all)
- shoes
- loaner bicycle(s)
- art supplies (any and all)
- cameras
- kitchen supplies

Tax deductable donations for these artists can be sent to:

5407 W. Vliet St.
Milwaukee, WI 53208
(please indicate “Riverwest Artists” in the memo line)

MARN also says they're planning benefits for the artists.

CLICK HERE for more details on how you can help.