UPDATE: La Crosse Fire Department blames fire behind bars on homeless trying to stay warm

Fire crews say downtown fire damaged buildings that house both Casino and Brothers bars

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) — The La Crosse Fire Department announced Monday, Feb. 8, that investigators have determined that the fire that originated behind 304 Pearl St. on Feb. 1 “was caused by a person or persons igniting combustibles.”

“Reports indicate that persons who are homeless had been residing in the alley and may have ignited the fire for the purposes of keeping warm,” according to the department.

Original story:

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) – At about 10 p.m. Monday, the La Crosse Fire Department was called in to a fire at the back of the building above Casino Bar.

The fire started on a porch on the back side of the building.

“It’s actually a two-story exterior stairwell to the back side of the building,” Assistant Chief of Community Risk Management Craig Snyder said. “And that area was fully engulfed.”

That portion of the building houses apartments above the Casino Bar.

“Our heart always goes out to these types of folks that lost their places of living at no fault of their own,” Snyder said.

Snyder is leading the investigation. He says the fire spread to the first and second floors of the Casino Bar building, and the second and third floors of the Brothers Bar building. Brothers Bar also suffered water damage.

“The Casino building or the 304 Pearl St. building sustained pretty heavy fire damage to the rear of the building, first floor and second floor,” Snyder said. “That building is going to be closed for quite some time.”

Fire Chief Ken Gilliam says multiple fire departments had to help out La Crosse fire crews.

“There were some pretty intense moments there for a while with the amount of smoke coming out of the structure,” Gilliam said.

The American Red Cross is helping three people affected by the fire.

“One of the residents there is OK because of insurance and declined our assistance, which is fine,” American Red Cross communications director Justin Kern said. “So just making sure those two folks have their next steps taken care of.”

Kern says the Red Cross right now is providing the other two residents aid for temporary lodging, food and basic needs.

Snyder says fires this time of year are common.

“We have a lot more people that are at home right now that they are in the past,” Snyder said. “And those things might have some bearing on some of the fires that we’re having as well as far as finding other sources of trying to heat homes.”

But if there is a silver lining with this fire, is that the building is not a total loss.

“Ultimately the structure (fire) isn’t in the basement. We saved the building I think,” Gilliam said.

Snyder says last night’s fire was the fifth in La Crosse already this year.

In January last year, there were four.

“A lot of these are very weather-dependent, the colder the weather comes,” Snyder said. “I’m a little nervous about the cold snap we have coming up here over the next few days, because that’s when people start plugging in that extra source of heat, whether it’s a space heater, or again improperly using an oven, to try and keep their house as warm as they possibly can. And that’s when we start to see a little bit of a higher rate of these types of occurrences.”

The official cause of the fire remains under investigation.