La Crosse Fire Dept. faces challenges fighting fires in extreme cold

The extremely cold temperatures we’ve been seeing this week are hard for anyone to handle, but it’s especially tough for those who have to work outside.

That includes members of the La Crosse Fire Department, who responded to a fire at Harter’s Recycling Center in the city’s industrial park Wednesday night.

Temperatures were barely above zero while firefighters were on the scene for about four hours trying to put out flames in the facility’s garbage piles.

The gear firefighters wear can provide plenty of protection from the cold, but staying warm can be hard once the water hoses go on.

“As soon as you start spraying water, water goes everywhere and you become completely covered in water, and then that freezes, so that makes it difficult,” said Captain Richard Placek. “Once you start getting wet all the way to your inside layers of clothes, then it gets really cold.”

Firefighters also have to make sure they keep that water running to make sure the lines and nozzles don’t freeze up. On nights like Wednesday, when crews are at the scene of a fire for several hours, firefighters can also work in shifts in order to make sure no one is exposed to the cold for too long.

Despite the added challenges of working in single-digit temperatures, Capt. Placek says the department is prepared to respond to any situation.

“It is hard to work in the cold environment that we’re in, but we train for this, this isn’t something that we don’t prepare for,” said Capt. Placek. “We fight fires in the cold and the hot, it doesn’t matter. We’re here to do a job and we practice for it.”

A cause for Wednesday night’s fire hasn’t been determined yet, but Harter’s suspects it could have been started by unrecyclable or hazardous materials like batteries being placed in recycling bins.