The Free Press, Mankato, MN

March 9, 2014

Update: Fire engulfs WW Blacktopping (video)

By Mark Fischenich
Free Press Staff Writer

A massive blaze requiring firefighters and equipment from seven area fire departments destroyed the primary facility of WW Blacktopping just north of Mankato Sunday afternoon.

The office and attached shop — home to the paving contractor's equipment-maintenance operations — were closed at the time of the blaze, which was discovered when a fire alarm was tripped at 1:40 p.m. Sunday. The Mankato police officer who responded to the alarm found the gate locked but smoke emanating from the building.

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Just outside of Mankato city limits, the fire is in the coverage area of the Kasota Volunteer Fire Department, which was immediately joined by Mankato fire crews. MAP

"The fire department was able to save some of the office equipment," said Lt. Jeff Wersal of the Blue Earth County Sheriff's Department.

The building was a total loss, however, including multiple pieces of equipment which were in the shop for repairs.

"This obviously is a devastating blow to me," said company co-owner and President Mitch Wolff, noting that the shop, office and business records were all destroyed, along with major construction equipment . "... We had probably eight or nine pieces of equipment in the shop for maintenance."

The fire came just as winter is ending and the construction seasons is approaching, but Wolff said the company was well-insured and he will find a way to get crews equipped and working on scheduled projects by the time the snow melts and the ground thaws.

"I'll have to," he said. "Our season doesn't start for a while yet."

Any hope of saving the building quickly disappeared Sunday afternoon.

Within an hour of the fire alarm sounding, billowing black smoke could be seen more than a mile away, and fire departments from Eagle Lake, Cleveland, Madison Lake, North Mankato and St. Peter had joined the fight.

With the nearest hydrant about 2,000 feet away, a water line was stretched the length of more than two football fields along Industrial Road and down the long driveway leading to the 21-acre site. Even with that hose providing 3,000 gallons per minute, a steady stream of tanker trucks entered and left the site — emptying their contents into the fabric reservoir that supplied additional water to the multiple hoses dousing the building.

Two Mankato firefighters in the bucket of the department's ladder tower truck, who intermittently disappeared in clouds of smoke when winds shifted to the west, dumped water from above and at least three other crews attacked the fire from hoses on the ground. Explosions, presumably from construction equipment fuel tanks or acetylene tanks, were heard in the initial hour of firefighting.

By 2:55 p.m., the heat of the fire reached the front of the building, home to a 2,100-square-foot office, and the attached letters "WW BLACKTOPPING" dropped, one by one, from the front wall to the ground. A few minutes later, flames sprouted from the roof line and by 3:20 a backhoe was ripping gaping holes in the western wall of the attached 10,000-square-foot shop building to allow the flames inside to be sprayed.

At the end of a long harsh winter, weather conditions were reasonable for fighting the fire with temperatures in the 40s and winds of less than 20 mph. But the piles of snow meant that law enforcement officers had to scramble to locate and clear the nearest hydrant.

"We were able to find it before they needed it," Wersal said.

The property, located in Lime Township, has been considered for possible annexation, according to Mankato city records, "but the cost of extending utilities to the area continues to be prohibitive."

WW Blacktopping, which paves streets, parking lots and roads throughout south-central Minnesota, obtained permission in October to operate its asphalt plant on the site for another five years. The site also has a pair of pole sheds that weren't affected by the fire.

The land and buildings at 700 Industrial Road are assessed at $648,000, although that doesn't include the value of the equipment stored in the buildings, according to Blue Earth County property records..

Even as he looked over the smoldering ruins Sunday, Wolff promised the company would be up and running by construction season.

"We're pretty resilient," he said. "My head's not going to be in the sand. We're going to be looking forward."