ST. GEORGE – Multiple fire crews responded to a blaze at the Utah State University Extension Office Wednesday morning that consumed the building’s attic and roof. Despite the efforts of firefighters, the building has been declared a total loss.
Around 9 a.m., staff at the office, located at 44 North 100 East in St. George, were in a meeting when the lights in the office went out, said Rick Heflebower, county director and horticulture agent for the extension. He and two others in the building were going to see if a circuit breaker had been tripped when they began to smell smoke. They then split up and began to search for the source of the smell.
Laurie Terry, a staff assistant, found smoke and flames coming from exhaust fan vent in a restroom. She attempted to put the fire out with an extinguisher, but it didn’t work.
“The extinguisher shot (the fire) down for a second and then it came back,” Terry said. At that point she called 911 and evacuated the building with the others.
The emergency call came in at 9:15 a.m., and the nearest fire crews rolled out. The fire on the first floor of the building was put out, St. George Fire Chief Robert Stoker said, however, the fire had spread into the ceiling and was working its way into the second floor.
Fire crews were sent into the building’s second floor through an outside access, but had difficulty putting the fire out quickly.
“This building has seen many remodels over the years,” Stoker said, “and that was our biggest factor in trying to fight this fire.”
Before the USU Extension moved into the building, it previously served as a mortuary and justice court. Due to the remodels that accompanied the changes in function, it added extra spaces for the fire to jump into and burn.
“A lot of concealed areas in this building, a lot of chases, ventilation shafts; different things over the years,” Stoker said. “These have changed when they did the remodels.”
When a fire in one room was put out by firefighters, the fire would still be very active in another room. Due to the remodels as well, some of the walls had been made thicker then usual and weren’t the easiest to break though. Once it was determined the fire had spread though much of the structure, the firefighters inside were evacuated. They continued to fight the fire from the outside with two high-pressure water streams blasted from the tops of fire engine ladders. A third water stream was applied by a fire crew on the ground.
Much of the building’s roof eventually collapsed as it was weakened by the fire inside and the pressure of the water streams outside.
Due to the USU Extension’s proximity to other buildings, such as Stapley Pharmacy, the roof of that building was hosed down to a degree and firefighters were put on the roof to make sure embers from the Extension fire didn’t drop on the pharmacy’s roof and ignite.
As for the USU Extension, the building is a total loss, Stoker said. Between 40-50 firefighters were on scene and none were harmed while fighting the fire. People inside the building when the fire started evacuated before fire crews arrived.
The fire was largely put out by 12 p.m.
The building, which is owned by Washington County, has housed the USU Extension for over 10 years, USU Extension Assistant Professor Paul Hill said. He said the extension, which hosts a number of summer camps, 4-H activities and outreach programs, kept a lot of the supplies for those programs on the second floor of the building. He said he believes the loss of the materials to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Hill was informed about the fire on his way into work and arrived to the scene of smoke and flames billowing from the extension’s roof.
Despite the loss of the building, Hill said the activities and programs offered by the USU Extension will continue – they just need to find a temporary place to set up while looking for a new facility. As well, he said many activities and summer camps are held outside of the office, so those functions won’t be impacted as much.
The University of Utah, which own property in St. George, has already offered the USU Extension some vacant office space, he said.
As the building the Extension was in is owned by the county, Washington County Commissioner Alan Gardner said the county plans to help the Extension find a new home.
Beyond the building, the county also supplies a portion of funding to the program. Other funding is supplied through the Utah State University and the United States Department of Agriculture.
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