ELKHART — A mostly vacant industrial building used to manufacture RVs in southwest Elkhart was completely destroyed in a fire visible from miles around Sunday afternoon.
The Elkhart Fire Department responded to the 2800 block of Oakland Avenue just north of Mishawaka Road just after 3 p.m. By the time crews arrived, the building was already engulfed in flames and the roof was caving in, so firefighters took a defensive position to spray water from the outside.
The blaze sent a large plume of smoke over the southwest side of Elkhart for several hours. People in South Bend and Goshen reported seeing the smoke, which ABC57 Meteorologist Matt Standridge said was visible on weather radar.
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Elkhart Coach Plant Manager Dave Tubicsak told our news partners at ABC57 that he saw the smoke as he was driving north from Knox in Starke County south of South Bend.
"We thought maybe it was a cloud, but then I got calls coming in saying it was smoke, is it our building? So I made a detour here and sure enough it was," he said.
Neighbor Jennifer Garner was at home with her family when they noticed the blaze. She told ABC57 that they all ran outside while someone called 911.
"It was a pretty intense moment and it went up super, super fast," Garner said.
The fire was under control within a couple hours, but hot spots and smoldering debris continued sending smoke into the air hours later.
Two Elkhart firefighters were transported from the scene to Elkhart General Hospital – one with a minor leg injury and the other overcome by heat exhaustion. Both were treated and released.
Elkhart Fire Chief Chad Carey told ABC57 the blaze was tough to fight because the roof collapsed early into the operation, hiding pockets of burning debris underneath and making it difficult for firefighters to move around in the building. The Baugo Township and Concord Township fire departments also responded to the scene to assist Elkhart firefighters with combing through the debris to douse hot spots.
Investigators had no word on what sparked the fire on Sunday. Carey said an Elkhart fire investigator was on the scene late Sunday trying to determine the cause and origin of the fire.
The building, which is located next to Oakland Lanes, is owned by Forest River, according to Elkhart County property records. The company recently had moved production out of the building and was working on renovations so its Elkhart Coach division could begin production there in June, Tubicsak told ABC 57.
He said Forest River managers would be meeting Monday to discuss how to move forward now that the building is a total loss.
"It's a minor setback," Tubicsak said. "We'll get through it. We always do."