State and local officials expressed optimism the Flint Hills Nature Trail bridge can be repaired to its natural state, after part of it was damaged in a fire Wednesday afternoon.
Tim Matthias, Ottawa fire chief, said from his observation the bridge could be reconstructed.
“It can be reopened,” he said. “It will take some time. There is significant damage to the substructure and some of the top deck was buckled up. It got fairly hot. From the top, the only thing you can really see is some of the railing sags a little bit where it was hot. On the far east end, there is a buckle in the concrete.”
Trent McCown, Kansas Department of Wildlife Parks and Tourism Prairie Spirit Trail manager, surveyed the damage to the bridge, located west of Ottawa near the Second Street dam, on Thursday.
“Based on our initial examination of the bridge, it does appear to be structurally sound,” McCown, who also assisted with the development and management of the Flint Hills Nature Trail, said. “However, we’ve closed it off for visitor safety until we can make 100 percent sure that everything is OK. We’d like to err on the side of safety.”
An engineer will examine the bridge’s integrity next week, McCown said.
“We should know [the bridge’s status] by next Tuesday,” he said Friday.
Flames burned into the bridge’s easternmost wooden support beams, officials said.
“There were some large timbers on the east end that ended up catching fire and burning,” McCown said. “However, on the main timbers — these are large beams — there appears to be only surface charring. Because they are such large, thick beams, they are able to withstand a lot of fire. “[The beams] are soaked in creosote for protection, and that’s what caused the major smoke. Due to the size of the beams, they appear to be structurally sound, with just some surface charring.”
Matthias said the cause of the fire is still under investigation.
“There is a human element involved,” he said. “We don’t know if it was intentional or accidental. Hopefully it was an accident. It is unfortunate.”
McKown said there were no visible signs pointing to the cause of the fire.
Firefighters at first had a hard time getting to the fire after it was called in at 4:10 p.m. Wednesday. Matthias said the pedestrian gates, which keep vehicles off the trail, were locked.
“We did not have keys to those,” Matthias said. “We have keys now. Even with the keys, the trail just holds the railroad. So we would not have put a big truck up there anyway. It took us a little time to get access to it. That was a concern for us. Once we did, we were able to get it under control very quickly.”
The fire was reported under control at 4:55 p.m., and extinguished at 5:25 p.m.
Matthias said the bridge is one of the area’s old treasures. He said it is the original railroad bridge.
“They took off the rail and added some substructure and put a concrete deck on top of it,” he said. “You can go out there and look at the water. It is a really nice bridge.”
Staff writer John Jared Hawks contributed to this report.