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Local cook 'hero of the hour' for housing authority

Ken Phillips shakes hands with River Falls Fire Chief Scott Nelson after being presented with a plaque for his help putting out a fire in his neighbor's home. Photo courtesy Anne McAlpine.

Ken Phillips was sitting down, watching "America's Got Talent" the evening of June 20, when he heard someone pounding on his door.

When he answered it, he found his new neighbor's young daughter asking for his help.

There was a fire.

He told the girl and her mom to get out of the building.

"I'll go in, do what I gotta do and put it out," he said.

The fire had started in a pan of chicken the neighbor had been frying on the stove.

"It was pretty bad," Phillips said. "The Housing (Authority) said if they would've had to wait for the fire department, it would've been way worse."

Phillips said the fire "just shot straight up" from the stove. A microwave and nearby cupboards were also damaged by the fire.

Phillips smothered the fire on the stove with towels and blankets from his own apartment.

But the fire had also gotten around behind the stove and that part, Phillips said, he wasn't quite able to put out. So he fought the flames and kept the fire contained until the fire department arrived.

They asked him to step outside while they put out the last of the fire and checked the area for "hot spots" that might reignite.

Phillips said he later found out there is a firewall between his apartment and the one next door, which was designed to keep fire from spreading between the units.

"We're pretty proud of him," said River Falls Housing Authority Executive Director Anne McAlpine. "He actually thought and figured out what he needed to do to put that (fire) out safely."

A lot of people panic when faced with a fire, McAlpine said. Not so in Phillips's case.

A Navy veteran, Phillips is far from a stranger to putting out fires.

"When you're out at sea, and there's a fire, you better know what you're doing," he said.

He said his navy training absolutely prepared him to help put out this fire.

Phillips is now being hailed as "the hero of the hour," by Housing Authority representatives.

"Everybody says 'That's not like everybody. They're not going to get up and just go and put a fire out.'" Phillips said. "That's just me."

Phillips said he was glad to help out.

The Housing Authority decided to present Phillips with a plaque and asked him to come to its Wednesday, Aug. 9 meeting to receive it. A call Phillips said he was surprised to receive.

"I didn't think, expect, to get a phone call saying 'Hey Ken, we want to give you a plaque,'" he said. "I'm dumbfounded. I'm just like, 'Wow.'"

"We're really proud of him," McAlpine said. "And we're really happy, because he lives next door, that he was able to protect both his place and his new neighbor."

McAlpine described Phillips as kind, generous and caring. She also described him as a great dad to his middle school-aged son.

Phillips and his former neighbors lived in a duplex. The neighbors have been assigned to a new unit. While their last one survived the fire, Phillips said, the damage was significant and it does require significant remodeling.

McAlpine said fires are not frequent in housing authority properties. She said the housing authority has put out a warning about fires and fire safety, and will be installing more fire extinguishers in its residences.

"I think if everyone had a fire extinguisher and knew how to use it, that would be really quick action," she said. She said duplexes aren't required to have fire extinguishers. "But it makes sense to have them."

Phillips, who spent seven years in the navy, has lived in River Falls for about eight years.

He had a few fire safety tips to share:

• First, keep a clear head. If you see a fire, first take a deep breath and try to stay calm.

• Second, keep a fire extinguisher in your home, particularly in kitchens, etc. If landlords don't provide these, they can be purchased at hardware stores.

• Keep a lid on food when cooking ,especially when using oil/grease.

• Smother grease fires, don't try to spray them, and don't use water to put them out.

Fire Chief Scott Nelson said it was great that Phillips could safely help put out the fire.

"That being said, we typically don't encourage people to reenter a building that is full of smoke and fire because of the risk of being hurt or overcome by smoke," Nelson said. " In this case, I'm glad everything worked out."

Gretta Stark

Gretta Stark has been a reporter for the River Falls Journal since July of 2013. She previously worked as a reporter for the New Richmond News from June 2012 to July 2013. She holds a BA in Print and Electronic Media from Wartburg College.

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