'Suspicious' fire burns East Grand Forks playground built by volunteers
A fire engulfed the eastern half of East Grand Forks' Sherlock Forest Playground on Friday morning, leaving a charred wooden frame and scorching a nearby tree.
Eric Hagen, a city employee who was driving by on his way to pick up trash, said he spotted white smoke at about 7:15 or 7:20 a.m., went to investigate and saw flames as high as a campfire. There was no debris around, he said, making him think it was deliberately started. "Someone had to have sprayed gas on the wall. It was coming up on the sides."
It had just started raining.
Within a minute, Hagen said the flames were as high as the nearby tree.
Fire Chief Randy Gust was on the scene with two other firefighters. The Herald didn't interrupt their work, but they were seen on their knees, combing through the debris with their hands and occasionally smelling the wood.
While black smoke is typical of gasoline fires, white smoke is typical of burning vegetable compounds such as hay, according to criminal investigation by Karen Hess and others.
The fire department, which has a fire hall down the street from the playground, issued a news release saying that firefighters battled the blaze from 7:20 to 7:40 a.m. Three-quarters of Sherlock Forest Playground was a total loss.
"It's a suspicious fire. It's under investigation. That's all we really know at this point," said City Administrator Scott Huizenga. It's suspicious, he said, because there's no electrical wiring running through the facility, ruling out an electrical fire, and there was no lightning at that location to anyone's knowledge.
Sherlock Forest Playground was built in 2003 with donations and volunteer labor.
Penny Pape of East Grand Forks headed the playground building committee.
"It's pretty devastating, to be honest," she said. "The timing is so bad with schools getting out, and I know there are so many schools that bring students over there for their last-day picnics."
Pape said the fire destroyed the climbing wall, tree house and pirate ship. Though the area for younger children was mostly untouched, she said it was likely the entire structure would have to be replaced.
Wanda Langerud, who lives just down the street, said her daughter, Samantha, was one of the volunteers who helped build the playground. "They built this after the flood of '97. They felt so proud of it."
She frowned as she snapped photos of the ruined playground.
Samantha graduated Friday from East Grand Forks Senior High, Langerud said. "She's upset. Her friends are saying, 'Who would do this, especially on a day we're supposed to be celebrating?'"
If the fire was set deliberately, this wouldn't be the first time Sherlock Forest attracted vandals. In 2008, police found graffiti scrawled on the playground; they said then that they hadn't had a problem with graffiti for a decade, and thought they'd stamped it out.
Huizenga marveled at the number of calls the city has had from would-be donors, seeking to help fund a replacement playground. "Considering the circumstances, it's about the best we can hope for," he said.
City staff is just taking names and numbers for now, he said. An insurance adjuster is on the way to East Grand Forks, he said, and the city will find out how much insurers will cover.
Pape and Superintendent of Parks and Recreation Dave Aker said they are already planning to meet next week about rebuilding the playground.
The company that makes the playground components estimated that replacing the entire playground, including labor, would cost $350,000 to $425,000, Huizenga said.
"A lot of kids grew up on that thing, and now we're going to need their help to put another one up," Aker said.
"We'll come back. We'll get it put up together. And we'll be back big and strong."