- Associated Press - Friday, December 23, 2016

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. (AP) - Burnt rubble and caution tape line some of the streets in downtown St. Joseph after two massive fires over the span of two months.

First, it was the old Mitchelhill Seed Co. building and then the Pioneer building - both vacant, historic structures destroyed, the News-Press (https://bit.ly/2h5pHM7 ) reported. But three local preservationists are looking ahead instead of focusing on the devastation. Cole Woodbury, Lisa Rock and Isobel McGowan are in the early stages of forming a Fire Prevention and Investigation subcommittee as a citizen’s organization. All three of them are landmark commissioners. They are also involved in the Historic St. Joseph Foundation, which the subcommittee will be formed under.

The first fire’s cause remains undetermined because of extensive damage and the second fire’s investigation is just beginning. As crews begin searching for answers, Woodbury said he feels frustrated and prompted to organize the subcommittee.

“Obviously you want to learn from any negative experience otherwise it’s just a tragedy,” said Woodbury.

Rock said she and the other founders of the subcommittee want to work with the city, the fire department and the police department to help prevent and investigate fires.

“We’re interested in trying to help find out what’s happening, what we can do to help better our chances of saving our properties and keeping them from being burnt,” she said.

McGowan said she hopes the group can offer the city and various departments by offering their expertise, ideas and strategies.

“Maybe articles that we’ve found, maybe examples of other cities we’ve researched, bring those to the table and offer those in conversation to help the city think through this problem,” said McGowan. “It’s a very complex problem, there are a lot of moving parts there.”

The problem of old buildings catching fire isn’t new in St. Joseph. The subcommittee’s founders said they’ve discussed the idea of stepping in to help for years. However, the two recent fires are fueling their efforts.

As crews begin the investigation process at the Pioneer Building, the community is lead to assumptions based on the process of elimination.

“Sometimes you think of the agents that start fires, electricity, gas, lightning strikes and when none of those things are evident or at play, the only remaining cause can be human hand, whether it’s deliberate or accidental,” McGowan said.

Woodbury said that he’s noticed a concern with the homeless population entering vacant buildings, which the subcommittee could help monitor.

“I just hope that we have a little more people paying attention, people being aware. We could have some sort of group in place that can monitor empty structures in some formal way to keep them safe to know if there’s any infiltration by people instead of letting it get to the point where we’re not aware of it until after the devastation,” said Woodbury.

When it comes to working with the city and various departments to help prevent and investigate fires, Woodbury said he doesn’t want to step on any toes or usurp authority.

“We just want to know what we can do to help be eyes and ears within the community to help them do their job even better or to help bring them information and maybe be aware of things before the problems even arise,” he said.

McGowan said the group hopes to have a mission statement, clear objectives and a meeting date soon and she encourages others to get involved.

“I always think that shining a bright light on a problem can often yield great success, great suggestions,” she said.

People can connect with the subcommittee founders on the Historic St. Joseph Foundation Facebook page.

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Information from: St. Joseph News-Press/St. Joe, Missouri, https://www.newspressnow.com


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