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Fire destroys Cloquet Interiors showroom, main warehouse

Organized chaos ensues as firefighters race to stop the fires racing through Cloquet Interiors buildings north of Cloquet last Thursday afternoon. photo contributed by CAFD1 / 3
View through the trees at Sunnyside where many residents gather to figure out what is burning. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal2 / 3
Firefighters rush to fight the blaze at Cloquet Interiors as several of the buildings filled with flooring options and adhesives burn last Thursday. Jana Peterson/Pine Journal3 / 3

Officials estimate the damage to the Cloquet Interiors business at roughly $1.5 million, following the massive fire Thursday, May 3, that destroyed the combination showroom/warehouse building and an adjacent warehouse. No one was injured in the fire, and its cause is still unknown.

More than 50 firefighters from the Cloquet area, Wrenshall, Carlton, Thomson Township and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources were on the scene for approximately nine hours, from just after 3:30 p.m. Thursday, May 3, to nearly 1 a.m. Friday, May 4. Even after the main fire was out, a smaller crew remained for another 12 hours at least, putting out spot fires as they flared up.

Most local residents learned of the fire after seeing the massive plume of black smoke rising over the north side of the city. From the heart of Cloquet, it looked like the hospital or the Churchill Elementary School was on fire. Rather, it was a homegrown Cloquet business a mile farther up Highway 33.

Cloquet Interiors is owned by Jim Abrahamson. His mother, Eleanor, lives on Highway 33, not far from the business her husband started in 1960. She told the Pine Journal that the business was started by her husband in the west end of Cloquet, then moved to Washington Avenue and finally up to the current location on Highway 33 around 1987. On Thursday, Abrahamson said she was "heartbroken" and didn't want to comment further.

According to the Cloquet Area Fire District press release, the report of the structure fire at 227 Minnesota Highway 33 came in at 3:32 p.m. The first units to arrive found the back of the 60-by-120-foot flooring showroom and warehouse heavily involved with fire. Another adjacent warehouse was also fully involved with fire venting through the roof and all openings.

CAFD Chief Kevin Schroeder explained that firefighters couldn't enter the burning structures because of the layers of carpet, linoleum and laminate flooring stored inside. After talking with the owners, the decision was made to establish a defensive fire attack, and protect the two additional warehouse facilities and several vehicles near the building while allowing the showroom and warehouse to continue burning.

The smoke that seemed to boil out of the flames bore a striking resemblance to the massive plume from the Husky refinery fire in Superior a week earlier.

Schroeder noted that many of the products at the carpet and flooring business are derived from petroleum products, so it was logical that the plume looked like a mini-version of the refinery smoke.

"This (fire) was much more contained and in a solid state. We didn't have liquids and the dynamic 3D fire they did," Schroeder said, referring to the mostly asphalt that burned in the Superior fire.

Law enforcement officers closed off Highway 33 between Adam Street and English Road for close to eight hours, as the smoke blew across the highway and DNR and CAFD firefighters worked to keep the fire from spreading to the dry grass, brush and trees nearby.

Tracy Grove rents the home just north of Cloquet Interiors, where a group of firefighters from CAFD and the Minnesota DNR were staged during the fire. Grove and her 13-year-old son, Morgan, came back to get their dogs after her co-workers at the Carlton County building in downtown Cloquet told her there was a fire north of town.

Grove was not allowed to access her driveway, as the fire and billowing black smoke loomed not too far away.

"They stopped me (at the roadblock), but I know some of the DNR officers and police officers and I said, 'C'mon guys, just let me get the dogs,'" she said, adding that she offered her keys to the officers if they wanted to go get them. In the end, they allowed Grove to rescue her dogs, Sammy and Indy, a Golden retriever and German shorthair.

She was not allowed to grab anything else — just the dogs.

That was OK, she said, the animals mattered more. The house and its contents survived the fire in the end.

At 8 p.m. Thursday, May 3, Schroeder told the Pine Journal at 8 p.m. that they could be fighting the challenging fire all night.

"We have an excavator coming in to pull the steel building apart," Schroeder said. "(There are) huge piles of carpet burning within the building and we can't get at it."

Around the same time, Cloquet Police sent an electronic alert around that the smoke from the fire was expected to move over north Cloquet and Esko as the building was breached to attack the fire inside.

Friday morning, Schroeder said the support from the community was much appreciated by the firefighters, noting that Gordy's, Kwik Trip and McDonald's brought food and water the night before, and the Salvation Army came in the morning with more supplies.

Although the bulk of the fire was out by between midnight and 1 a.m., a mostly fresh crew of firefighters remained at the business Friday morning, tackling smaller fires as they flared up from the smoldering remains of the showroom and warehouse.

"With all the piles of flooring and storage, there's deep seated fire underneath," Schroeder said. "As the excavator pulls the top away, it gets oxygen and flares back up again. There's no way we can get enough water and stuff through 17 rolls of carpet to actually put the fire out."

Schroeder had reason to want to make sure there was nothing left burning Friday, as the NWS issued a red flag warning for the afternoon, alerting Carlton County and much of the state that weather conditions would be ideal for wildfire that day, with strong winds and low humidity.

"With the fire weather warnings coming up later here this afternoon, with the wind and temperature, we want to make sure this is cold and under control," Schroeder said. In the press release, he said 380,000 gallons of water were used to extinguish the fire.

During the fire, CAFD officials worked with the National Weather Service to project the potential impact of the smoke plume, which Schroeder said likely posed more of a short-term risk as an irritant rather than any kind of long-term hazard to health.

The smoke would have been made up of the byproducts of the burning carpets and linoleum-type floorings, which he said could contain hydrocarbon derivatives like acetone, benzene and even formaldehyde.

Regarding run off from the fire-fighting efforts, Schroeder expects that to be minimal.

"While burning, the material is going airborne, and when extinguished it returns to a stable solid," he said, adding that the water from the firefighting efforts will have some residual chemical content but CAFD does not have any method for monitoring that.

The cause of the fire is under investigation by the CAFD Investigation Team.

Pine Journal reporter Jamie Lund contributed to this story.

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>Cloquet Interiors open for business

Cloquet Interiors owner Jim Abrahamson said Wednesday that the store is open for business again, only instead of a massive showroom they are currently working out of a 30-foot temporary office space. But they are on-site and he's already making plans for the future.

"We intend to build a new showroom, and we're going to move forward," Abrahamson said.

They already have installers working to fill customer orders that weren't damaged in the fire, and they are ordering new supplies for orders that were stored in the main warehouse. Two other warehouses were unaffected by the fire.

"We were able to put our guys back to work as soons as we had a place to sit down in the office," he said, adding that they got their electronics running Tuesday.

Abrahamson said many records were destroyed in the fire, so he and others are sorting through records and trying to figure out how much was lost. The $1.5 million figure is a very preliminary estimate, he said.

Abrahamson expressed thanks to the community and many individuals who have been very supportive, and encouraged people to stop by the temporary office on-site during office hours from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday or 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays, or call 218-879-9248 with questions.

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