Electrical Fire Forces Restaurant Evacuation

It was the height of the dinner hour at The English Inn in Fish Creek on Sunday, Oct. 9, when smoke pouring out of the attic caused the evacuation of all diners.

“I had 30 tables with guests on the patio, another 40 tables inside,” said Randy Daubner, owner of the restaurant at 3813 Hwy 42.

The previous day, they’d served a record number of dinners – “600 people, the most for the year so far,” Daubner said – and had another 350 reservations on the books for Sunday evening.

No one was hurt, and all ended well, with no fire, no smoke damage and the restaurant back in business by Monday night. But it didn’t seem that way at first, and it definitely made for a crazy Sunday. Customers pushed back from tables full of uneaten food and took their drinks along outside. Some asked whether they could finish their drinks before they left; others asked for to-go boxes.

“It was an interesting night, watching all the customers react,” said Daubner, who’s never had to evacuate a restaurant during his 18 years of owning this one or, previously, the Voight Supper Club (now the Mink River Basin) in Ellison Bay.  

The tip-off to the electrical problem were the lights on the stairs leading to the bathrooms. One side went out, and the other grew dimmer. Staff put flashlights on the stairs so no one would trip, and Daubner went out to the patio.

“Right away, I smelled electrical, or a fire,” he said.

An employee who went up to the attic opened the door to solid smoke.

“We immediately stopped all dinner service,” Daubner said.

Staff called 911 and hauled fire extinguishers, gallons of water and even a circular saw up to the attic like a volunteer fire crew. 

“That was amazing how the staff reacted,” Daubner said. 

Minutes later, the Gibraltar Fire Department showed up. Jerrad Anderson, deputy fire chief of the Gibraltar Fire Department who led the call that evening, said they had some difficulty maneuvering the trucks onto the site. The whole parking lot was full of vehicles with guests standing by, watching the action, some with drinks still in hand. 

“We knew it was around the dinner-crowd rush, so it wasn’t fun getting the apparatus in there,” Anderson said. “We got the first one in place, and then after I learned what was going on, we were able to pull people off and deal with traffic control.” 

Thermal-imaging cameras assisted the firefighters in determining the heat source for the smoke in the attic. The smoke was dissipating rather than increasing and flipping the breakers, and they discovered the step-light outage was the source of the problem. Although there was no fire, the problem was nothing to fool with.

“Had the breaker not tripped, or had there been other material closer to the box, there definitely could have been a fire,” Anderson said.

Back inside, Daubner said the scene was surreal: abandoned tables of food, Wellingtons in the oven, food beneath the heat lamps, and plates trayed up and ready to serve. The restaurant remained closed for the evening, but some guests returned to offer to pay for their drinks or a bottle of wine or to tip their server.

Shortly after, staff called the fire department again with another report of smoke. The crew returned, did another search and ascertained that turning the ovens back up and the turning dishwasher on had created steamy conditions approximating smoke.

“It ended up [being] more of a scared staff than anything, which is understandable,” Anderson said.

In all, the fire department spent about two hours on both calls. 

Anderson said that electrical issues are nothing to mess with, and The English Inn was fortunate for the quick call and action. He also took the opportunity to remind residents that this is the time of year to get chimneys cleaned and inspected.

As for The English Inn, an electrical company arrived the next day to make the repairs, and by Monday evening, the restaurant was back in business. 

“We want to thank everybody for reacting so quickly to this,” Daubner said. “The fire department was there immediately after we called. It makes me feel better knowing that they’ll be there that quickly if we ever have a major fire. This could have turned out to be horrible.”

And to the restaurant’s guests? 

“We apologize for the inconvenience and hope to see you soon,” Daubner said.

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