LA POINTE, Wis. - An explosion and fire early Wednesday morning leveled the building that housed Madeline Island’s only fire department and ambulance service.
No one was injured in the blast at 320 Big Bay Road, though a police officer had left the building less than two hours before, said Red Cliff Fire Chief Jeff Hood, whose department provided aid at the scene. The building has sleeping quarters for the Town of La Pointe’s police officers.
A neighbor who also is a La Pointe firefighter reported the explosion at 2:50 a.m., said Lisa Potswald, La Pointe town administrator, as she stood near the still-smoldering debris on Wednesday.
Currently, the ice road between Madeline Island and Bayfield is open. If it hadn’t been, the officer would have been sleeping in the building at the time of the blast, she said.
“Luckily, because we had an ice road (between Madeline Island and Bayfield), the officer working last night was able to go home,” Potswald said.
In the summer, especially, the town’s police often stay overnight at the fire hall because ferry service ends by about 1 a.m.
Potswald declined to speculate on the cause of the blast, which remains under investigation, though she said there were vehicles parked inside the building with gas in their tanks.
With temperatures expected to climb through the weekend, the focus now is on getting backup emergency vehicles onto the island while the ice road is still open, Potswald said.
“The fire department has already met twice this morning and they organized into committees to start looking at dealing with things like personal protective gear, vehicles, equipment and the building, in terms of ‘How do we start dealing with this?’”
Potswald said that fire trucks from Washburn and Red Cliff would be delivered to La Pointe as early as tonight, and those will serve Madeline Island’s 267 full-time residents until the ferry begins running again this spring.
“We want to get them over while the ice road is still viable,” Potswald said.
There’s a transition period after the ice road deteriorated and before the ferry begins when the island depends on wind sleds, but those are too small to bring vehicles across, Potswald said.
The fire department also will borrow a recently decommissioned ambulance from south of Ashland that’s for sale, said Nate Nelson, ice rescue operator with the La Pointe Fire Department.
Madeline Island has a clinic open several days a week, Nelson said, but residents are otherwise dependent on a connection to the mainland for serious medical care, whether by ferry, wind sled or ice road.
A new ambulance for the island could take some time, so borrowing one from elsewhere is crucial, Potswald said.
“The difficulty is, it took us a year and a half to get our ambulance, because they’re built to order,” she said. “I don’t know how long we’re going to have to use somebody else’s equipment.”
Town officials also are working out where police officers will sleep when they need to stay overnight on the island. Potswald said several people in the island have offered space in their homes, and the town also could rent a home until the fire hall is rebuilt.
Although La Pointe has fewer than 300 residents year round, Madeline Island is a popular tourist destination, and Potswald said the population can swell to as many as 5,000 people during the summer months.