OTTUMWA — Ottumwa's fire chief is relieved there were observant neighbors living on Mary Street.
They noticed a house on fire in the early morning hours Sunday and alerted the residents to the danger.
"That could have turned out a lot worse," said Chief Tony Miller of the Ottumwa Fire Department.
Around 1 a.m., firetrucks arrived at the location in the 900 block of West Mary Street, which is across from the new Liberty Elementary School; though they had a big fight ahead of them, at least, said the chief, there was the relief of seeing that everyone was out of the house.
"They saw the house was on fire, they had flames coming through the roof, so they went over and got them out of there," Miller said. "If the neighbors hadn't been there to wake them up, who knows what could have happened?"
This was not a small fire, Miller said.
"It was a serious situation, a pretty serious fire with extensive damage to the house."
Fighting it took some effort, too, he said.
"It was really cold that night, and the house was very well insulated, so it took some time to get to it in the attic," he said.
During the fight, temperatures, not including wind chill, dropped below zero. Hundreds of gallons of water froze so fast, "it was like an ice rink" over there, Miller said. He also worried about firefighters getting frostbite, particularly with soaking wet gloves that froze solid like rocks.
"The next-door neighbors allowed us to use their heated garage," he said. "They were kind enough to let us use it as a rehab area [for firefighters]."
Firefighters helped the family grab some important things out of the garage before the fire got too bad. An estimate puts the damage to the home at $50,000. The Southern Prairie Chapter of the American Red Cross was called; they were contacted to help the residents, but they also brought hot coffee for firefighters.
Miller said his people were on the scene for about four and a half hours.
— News reporter Mark Newman is on Twitter @couriermark