Investigators are trying to determine whether a fire that destroyed part of the bleachers at Ashland High School's football stadium Wednesday night was caused by arson.
The school district plans to post 24-hour security guards on the campus for at least the next four days to watch for illegal activities, said Gary Sisk, the district's maintenance director.
Ashland Fire & Rescue responded to the blaze at 10:21 p.m. and found 7-foot flames shooting from the north end of the bleachers. The fire caused significant structural damage to the stadium, said Margueritte Hickman, division chief and fire marshal. It was controlled by 10:35 p.m., but firefighters worked to extinguish flare-ups until midnight, Capt. Scott Hollingsworth said.
A sprinkler system activated during the fire, likely saving the structure from complete destruction, Hickman said.
"If we had not had the fire sprinkler system, I think we would be looking at a very large pile of rubble," she said. "I think it was definitely a huge assistance to us last night."
Ashland Police Department responded to the fire, which was initially believed to be a probable arson, Police Chief Terry Holderness said.
"Our original feeling was that it was an arson," he said. "The status from the officer was that there was no evidence immediately found at the scene."
Police turned the investigation over to Ashland Fire & Rescue, he said. The cause of the fire remains under investigation, Hickman said Thursday afternoon.
"We have yet to rule anything out," she said. "We've spent most of the day working on the investigation and we're still working on it."
The fire was the third blaze Ashland Fire & Rescue responded to on Wednesday — the day before fire season started — but investigators do not believe any of the fires are related.
The stadium was "charred pretty deep" beneath the bleachers, Hickman said.
The blaze reached portions of the locker room beneath, but did not significantly damage the area, where football memorabilia from more than 50 years is stored, said Charlie Hall, the high school's head football coach.
"I'm very disappointed, but I think it could have been a lot worse," he said, surveying the damage Thursday morning. "Had the locker room went up in smoke, it would have really upset a lot of people who have played football at Ashland High School. This makes you really appreciate what we have because we almost lost it."
Sisk said a structural engineer will assess the damage from the fire in the next couple of days and the district likely will decide next week how the stadium will be repaired or rebuilt. The district has insurance on the stadium that is expected to cover some of the costs related to the blaze, he said.
The American Band College's annual Fourth of July concert at the stadium Sunday evening will continue as planned, said Paul Kassulke, director of operations. Correction: The incorrect day for the Fourth of July concert was listed in this story initially.
"It will still be here, at the same time," he said Thursday. "We'll just go to our plan B, which we're working on right now."
Hall said he heard there had been an informal gathering of students at the stadium before the blaze broke out.
Hickman said Thursday she couldn't yet confirm or deny that a gathering had taken place at the stadium Wednesday night.
School officials and investigators are discussing the possibility that the fire was caused by fireworks, which largely have been banned in the city, Hall said.
"That's the logical, probable cause people are saying, just because of the time of year," he said.
Hickman said investigators haven't pinpointed the cause of the fire yet, but are continuing to search for evidence.
Earlier Wednesday, firefighters responded to a fire that started in a closet at 4:30 p.m. and spread throughout a one-story home at 166 Sherman St., rendering the home a total loss.
Investigators said Thursday that the fire was caused by a juvenile playing with fire, but they declined to provide more information. Marty Rush lived at the home with his wife and teenage son, who was home alone at the time of the blaze and escaped uninjured.
The same crews battled a one-acre grass fire in the 200 block of Meyers Creek Road, off East Valley View Road, between Ashland and Talent Wednesday. The fire began at 1:30 p.m. and was controlled just before 2 p.m., said Jackson County Fire District No. 5 Capt. Larry Decker. The cause of the fire remains under investigation.
Hall said the stadium fire won't delay the football season.
"Hopefully we'll be able to put it together before the first Grizzly game in September," he said. "I guess it's pretty lucky that our first two games are away. Worst case, we'll just flip it over and have the fans sit on the other side. But that'd be a shame because going to a Grizzly football game is about sitting in this structure, as it's been for the last 100 years or so."
Contact reporter Hannah Guzik at 541-482-3456 ext. 226 or email@example.com.