ELMIRA — A rural post office destroyed in an overnight fire left election officials answering hot-button questions throughout the day Wednesday.
Elmira-Warner firefighters, joined by state troopers, arrived on-scene around 11 p.m. Tuesday, according to Michigan State Police Seventh District spokesman Derrick Carroll. Rolling up, they watched flames lick at the aged Elmira Post Office’s windows.
Thick, black smoke was already billowing into the night sky, Carroll said.
It took firefighters almost three hours to extinguish the blaze, according to Elmira-Warner Fire Chief Donny Franckowiak. The structure still stands and much inside was spared from the flames, but he said the building will need a new roof if it’s to be salvaged.
“There’s a lot — a lot — of water damage inside, not so much fire damage,” Franckowiak said, adding that the building’s cement-block structure likely helped with that.
An MSP fire investigator was on-scene Wednesday afternoon and will complete a report, Carroll said. For now, officials don’t suspect anyone had a hand in starting the fire.
“It appears, after a preliminary investigation, that the fire started on an inside wall near an outlet,” Carroll said. “It’s not a suspicious fire, but we want to rule out everything.”
Burn marks appear to have run up that wall from the outlet, he added, and barring conflicting findings from the fire investigator, an electrical cause is the working theory.
Antrim County Sheriff Dan Bean said his department isn’t involved, but he heard suspicions Wednesday that too many things were plugged into one of the aged building’s outlets.
Still, it’s an unusual — and unfortunate — situation.
“I’ve never seen a post office fire, in 25 years with the State Police,” Carroll said, adding that no one was injured in the fire. “It could’ve been worse (if it was earlier in the day) — or someone could’ve seen it quicker and put it out. We don’t know with those circumstances.”
He couldn’t offer a timeline on when an investigation report might be completed. If the investigator discovers any signs of foul play, dogs trained to identify accelerants will be brought in and a deeper investigation will be conducted.
Franckowiak, who grew up nearby, said the building is a longtime landmark.
“It’s a piece of history,” Franckowiak said. “It’s kinda the center point of town — everybody comes down to get their mail in the morning and visit, catch up on the gossip.
“It’s been the post office ever since I can remember.”
Meanwhile, the destroyed post office left election officials fielding questions Wednesday about absentee ballots sent through the U.S. Postal Service.
Postal officials said they await more details about how the fire affected any mail in the building at the time.
Local township clerks reported there is an online tracking service provided by state election officials that can help voters track their absentee ballot. Any ballots recently mailed in the Elmira area that may have been destroyed in the fire can be easily tracked down and replaced, officials confirmed.
“There’s nothing to be concerned about. There is a way to track them,” said Susan Schaedig, Elmira Township clerk in Otsego County.
The unincorporated village of Elmira straddles the Antrim-Otsego counties’ boundary and the post office there serves customers in both counties.
Schaedig’s counterpart in Antrim County’s Star Township, Clerk Phyllis Hoogerhyde, also pointed to the state’s ballot tracking system. She said no voter anywhere in Michigan is ever in a position to not know whether their absentee ballot was received and counted.
“If they have any questions they can give me a call. I can help them track down their ballot and if it burned, I’ll re-issue them an absentee ballot,” Hoogerhyde said.
Schaedig explained how the system works: When a voter requests an absentee ballot, their application is logged into the state’s database, followed by the ballot number when it’s sent to them, and finally when that ballot is received back into election officials’ hands.
A Michigan Secretary of State spokesperson said that state agency, too, awaits more details about whether any election mail was affected.
The state website to track absentee ballots is www.michigan.gov/vote.
Schaedig said when she first heard about the fire, she became worried about an absentee ballot she recently mailed out. So she drove to the citizen’s home Wednesday to confirm he had actually received it before the post office fire, she said.
Elmira Township resident Karen Karsten said she’s glad she hadn’t recently mailed her absentee ballot. She’s planning to deliver it to a drop box in person, she said.
“Mine’s still on my kitchen counter, not even opened yet,” Karsten said.
That’s not to say she didn’t perhaps lose other mail that would have otherwise been delivered to her home, she said.
U.S. Postal Service officials announced mail service would be rerouted to the Gaylord Post Office, including P.O. Box deliveries and drop-off shipments.
Antrim County Commissioner Christian Marcus, who represents some of the affected postal customers, said this is a critical time for the mail service given it’s election season and so many have chosen to vote absentee.
Marcus said the post office fire only strengthens his opinion that voting should be done in person: “This is a perfect example of why voting in person is so much better and more secure. If you can wear a mask and go out and do things, why can’t you wear a mask to vote?”
Hoogerhyde said she can be reached at 231-357-3353 to answer questions, while Schaedig said voters from her township can call her at 989-732-2920.
Warner Township Clerk Pam Zaremba said voters in that area can call her at 231-342-5628 with questions about tracking their absentee ballot. Residents in that Antrim County township also have mail carriers from the Elmira Post Office.