On April 15, 2003 the City of Oak Creek experienced one of the largest fire events in the city's history. A train traveling southbound on the Union Pacific Railroad started a series of grass fires that extended over a five-mile stretch of the city. The fires were driven eastward through areas of tall grass and brush by winds blowing from the west at 35 miles per hour.
The department established an area command at Drexel Avenue and the Union Pacific Railroad tracks. Individual commands were established near Rawson Avenue, Montana Avenue, Forest Hill Avenue and Ryan Road. The fires were a threat to numerous homes in the area. To provide adequate fire fighting resources, the department activated its mutual aid system. The response went to 5 Alarms with units responding from 15 area departments, bringing 170 firefighters into the battle.
Calls from residents whose homes were in danger flooded into the Police and Fire Dispatch centers. There were 17 homes where the fire reached within 20 feet of the structure before being stopped. One home on South Pennsylvania Avenue had commercial quantities of fireworks stored in outbuildings. When the fire spread to those structures the fireworks began to rocket from the structure. Near misses to some fire personnel caused a shift to a defensive operation. The resulting inability to get close to the fire was a factor in the structure's loss.
The City's Emergency Operations Center (EOC) was activated for this fire and the EOC was staffed throughout the afternoon. City staff, including elected officials, were on the front lines directing traffic and providing water to weary fire crews. Airport operations from Mitchell International Airport responded with heavy equipment which was invaluable in overhauling deep seated fires in wooded areas.
At about 2 pm, as the wildland fires were being brought under control, an alarm was transmitted for a fire in a multi-family dwelling on South 5th Avenue. Workers on a roof had started a fire and attempted to extinguish the fire for a considerable period of time before calling 911. The structure was 90 years old and had been remodeled numerous times. All Oak Creek fire units were still committed on the wildfires so the initial response was from mutual aid units. This fire went to 3 Alarms with 60 firefighters responding.
Because of the delayed alarm and the advanced state of the fire, the initial incident commander used a defensive operation to try to halt the spread of the fire to other portions of the structure. A number of attempts at interior attack were made but were unsuccessful due to collapse issues and fire spread through void spaces. During the evening hours heavy equipment was brought in to open up the structure to allow hose streams to reach the deep-seated fires.
Any description of the events of this day would be incomplete if it failed to mention the tremendous effort by the community to pull together to help one another. Citizens manned garden hoses to slow down fires until fire units could be freed up from other assignments. Residents directed traffic, brought drinking water to firefighters, and helped out in ways large and small. The residents pride in their community and concern for their neighbors was in full view that day.