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Alexandria loses home to blaze on third day without electricity

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news Mitchell, 57301
Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

ALEXANDRIA -- Thomas Boggs lit a cigarette as he watched the remains of his home smolder and burn.

"I was lucky to make it out," he said. "If I would have gone back in, there would have been no coming back."

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Boggs, a 63-year-old resident of Alexandria, was alone in his home at 713 Third St. around 5 a.m. Thursday when he woke up and noticed something was wrong.

"I heard some noise and it smelled real bad," he said. "I stood up and walked out and the roof was on fire."

Boggs ran next door to where his brother lives and called the fire department at approximately 5:15 a.m.

Alexandria had been without electricity since Tuesday because of a spring storm that brought ice, sleet, snow and gusting winds that toppled power lines across the region. Still more snow fell overnight prior to the fire at Boggs' house, where he had been using his fireplace for heat.

Alexandria received between 8 and 10 inches of snow during the three-day storm, according to the National Weather Service in Sioux Falls.

The conditions made it hard for firefighters to reach Boggs' burning home. According to Alexandria Fire Chief Lyle Tegethoff, the street near the home had to be partially cleared of snow before firefighters could get close enough to deal with the blaze. Eventually, two fire trucks were able to get near enough -- one truck in the street and another in a nearby alleyway -- but by that time, Boggs' home was already burning out of control.

"When we got here it was pretty much engulfed in flames," Tegethoff said in an interview Thursday with The Daily Republic at the scene.

To make matters worse, nearby fire hydrants had no pressure because of the power outage and were unusable, Tegethoff said.

As he watched the situation unfold, it became clear what was going to happen, Boggs said.

"I knew it was gone because they had no water."

Without much hope of saving the house, Tegethoff said firefighters worked to keep the fire from spreading.

By 10 a.m., Boggs' home was reduced to rubble, ash and smoke. Only the chimney remained standing.

No official cause of the fire was determined, Tegethoff said. Boggs believes the fire started in the chimney.

Boggs said he would likely stay with his brother Thursday night, but wasn't sure where he was going to stay after that.

It was only recently, Boggs said, that he had painted portions of his house and had new insulation installed.

"Now it's all gone," he said. "I have to start over."

News of the fire spread quickly through the small town of 615 people, where residents were already reeling from two previous days without power.

Jim Wilcox, a spokesman for Xcel Energy, which supplies power to Alexandria and many other communities in eastern South Dakota, said Thursday the company now estimates the majority of its customers will have power by Friday night.

Xcel had 383 people working to restore power to affected communities on Thursday, Wilcox said, but there were still approximately 24,000 of its customers without power.

Away from the rubble and smoke of Thursday's fire, residents in storm-stricken Alexandria helped each other any way they could.

Nancy Deppe and several other volunteers made chili at the Hanson County Courthouse, where a small shelter was set up for anyone suffering without electricity or heat.

Deppe said she contacted Alexandria Mayor Tim Wenande on Wednesday about setting up a shelter, and Wenande then contacted Emergency Management Director Kevin Kayser.

"We just started talking," she said, "and we thought there was a need."

On Wednesday night, Deppe said, nearly 30 people were served at the courthouse, and others were brought chili at their homes.

Though the shelter was nearly empty Thursday morning, Deppe expected even more people to show up for a meal later in the day. Sloppy joes and hot dogs were added to the menu Thursday, Deppe said, as was cold cereal, fruit and banana bread. In all, at least 10 volunteers have worked at the shelter.

Many of the people served meals were also out doing cleanup and repairs in the town, Deppe said.

"It's just nice to have a place to go and stay warm," she said.

Deppe donated a large amount of the food herself, while much of the rest came from the local food pantry.

Deppe was quick to give credit to others involved.

"There are a lot of people that worked really hard to get this all together," she said.

Deppe hopes the shelter will be able to be set up again during future emergencies.

"I just really think it unites the community," she said.

Hanson County State's Attorney Jim Davies cleared snow off the sidewalk and gutter Thursday morning in front of his office on Main Street. While there is an understandable frustration with the storm and power outage, Davies said, the town's residents seem to be coping well.

"You just do what you have to do," he said. "Grills become cook stoves and fireplaces become heat sources."

With a generator rumbling nearby, Tom Degen kneeled in the snow and slush while he worked on a trailer for a skid loader outside of his home, where his whole family was staying.

"We're all taking care of each other," he said.

For the most part, Degen said, the town has been quiet in the wake of the storm.

"My kids are even playing board games," he said. "I'm not sure I've ever seen that before."

As he stood between large piles of snow, Degen laughed with an optimistic grin.

"Maybe the sun will come out," he said.

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