MONTESANO — School officials vowed to rebuild the grandstands at Montesano High School’s Jack Rottle Field after a quick-burning fire Sunday night left the wooden structure a charred skeleton of its former glory.
Firefighters managed to contain the fire to the grandstands, saving the adjacent gymnasium and district offices, as well as the schools across the street.
Montesano Fire Chief Corey Rux said firefighters are back on the scene Tuesday morning, trying to figure out the fire’s origins. Rux said the investigators have not ruled out arson at this time.
“We haven’t ruled out anything at this point,” Rux said. “It’s still too early to determine the cause. … We’re being objective here as we gather evidence.”
Rux said this morning that investigators are looking into a small fire at the grandstands back on Aug. 23 to see if there’s any connection to the one that consumed the structure on Sunday. That small fire was quickly extinguished after it was spotted. The cause was undetermined, Rux said.
“We have to do due diligence before we make any correlation between the two,” Rux said this morning.
This is the second Montesano icon to be devastated by a fire in the past few weeks. On Aug. 25, the Mary’s River sawmill on the south edge of town burned to the ground. Rux said firefighters are still working with insurance investigators to determine the cause and origin of the Mary’s River Lumber fire.
Asked if there could be any connection between the grandstand and Mary’s River fires, Rux replied, “We have to look at each fire on its own. If we see any correlation then we look into that. We’re not even at that point yet.”
VOWS TO REBUILD
“We have to rebuild,” Montesano School Board President Jack Dwyer emphasized on Monday. “We will rebuild. We have insurance. That’s going to be worked out this afternoon. Certainly, I already have people asking me to do a bond measure to rebuild the grandstands and add artificial turf. But it’s way too early for that. ‘Slow down,’ I tell them. At some point, we’ll discuss those things. Right now, I’m just grateful nobody lost their life.”
The grandstand fire started shortly before 9:45 p.m.. on Sunday and firefighters returned Monday afternoon to check for hot spots. About 25 firefighters from Montesano and Fire District 2 responded to the fire, according to Rux.
“The investigation team is working through the debris and is involved in collecting evidence and processing it to determine the cause and the origin,” Rux said. “The primary concern was not to allow the fire to spread to the adjacent gymnasium. Despite the flame heat intensity, we worked extensively to confine the fire to the area of origin.”
Rux said the area around the grandstand, as well as a nearby parking lot has been blocked off. The adjacent Bo Griffith Memorial Gym is still open and parts of it were being used Monday. Rux said the building doesn’t appear to have sustained water damage, although there’s some superficial heat damage.
“We’re going to have to cordon the stadium off because it’s really dangerous,” Athletic Director Tim Trimble said. “You have half-standing rafters that could fall. It’s dangerous for people walking past it.”
Trimble said some of the lights were also damaged in the fire, making immediate night games at the field unlikely, even if temporary bleachers could be brought in. Trimble said Montesano’s home soccer game with Napavine on Tuesday has been moved to Stewart Field in Aberdeen. The seventh-grade football game with Miller Junior High today has been moved to Miller. Volleyball and soccer against Forks on Thursday has been moved to Forks.
Montesano’s next varsity football game with Forks on Sept. 28 has been moved to Stewart Field.
The smell of smoke was still in the air Monday afternoon at the high school.
“What do you say when something like this happens?” said Montesano Mayor Ken Estes, who could see the fire from his house as the flames shot to the sky. “Words defy what a loss this is to the community. This was a place where we gathered and celebrated our youth. They don’t build stadiums like that any more. Whatever will be rebuilt, will most likely be built from steel and that’s just not going to be the same.”
Estes was among the community members on Monday who wondered aloud whether arson was involved.
“Of course we don’t know and we have to let the fire investigators do their job, but this is a different fire than what was at Mary’s River,” Estes said. “It’s not like there was equipment there to malfunction.”
Firefighters were still investigating the fire and what caused it today.
School was back in session Monday morning, although a steady stream of students and teachers emerged from the building all day to take a look at the fire’s remains. Cars stopped in the middle of the street with their drivers taking photos.
“It’s pretty quiet in the building today,” Montesano Principal Robert Corley said Monday. “Everybody is pretty surprised. I am shocked. The fire just happened so quickly.”
Pat Bossard was among the throng of residents who felt an urge to see what had happened. Bossard said members of her family had played football and track at the stadium.
“It holds a lot of memories,” Bossard said, wiping away a few tears. “You wouldn’t think an old building like that would affect me so much but all the memories just come back. That whole stadium would be full of people. You’d need to get there at 6 p.m. with a blanket just to get a seat. You’d see neighbors and friends and the kids. I sure hope nobody did this on purpose.”
Montesano High School Senior Forrest Gonzalez, 17, was taking photos of the fire’s remains Monday morning.
Gonzalez was on the football team last year as a fullback, but hurt his back and hasn’t played this season.
“This is all the team is talking about,” he said. “Montesano football is the epitome of pride in this town.”
Besides the grandstand, Dwyer noted that the fire also took out the championship banners for football, track and fast pitch.
“Those go back generations,” Dwyer said. “It’s hard to replace those memories, but we’ll do our very best.”
The grandstands were opened in 1942 and the fire happened just a couple weeks short of the 70th anniversary of the complex, according to Ralph Lovelace, of Tumwater, a prep athletics historian. Lovelace said by his count, Friday’s football game was the 327th game at the field. In 1986, the field was dedicated to Jack Rottle, a former mayor and businessman in Montesano.
Most of the grandstands in the area are made of wood. Olympic Stadium in Hoquiam is the only wooden grandstand in Grays Harbor with a sprinkler system, according to Aberdeen Fire Chief Dave Carlberg, who researched the issue.
Carlberg noted that the wooden grandstands at Stewart Field in Aberdeen were hit by a fire on May 1, 1971, that destroyed the press box on top of the main grandstand. The fire was caused by an electrical failure within the press box area.
“Upon arrival by the first units, the entire press box and portions of the roof were fully involved,” Carlberg wrote in an email. “Firefighters had to attack it both from the field side and the the school yard at Robert Gray by laddering the structure with aerial and ground ladders. Fortunately, they managed to limit the spread of the fire protecting the main part of the home side grandstand structure.”
Sports Editor Rick Anderson and Daily World reporter Will Morris contributed to this story.