A 12-year-old Fremont boy was cited on suspicion of third degree arson after a Wednesday night playground fire at Bell Field Elementary School.
No one was injured in the blaze, which destroyed the school’s playground equipment. A school official estimates the damage at $30,000 and doubts new equipment will be in place when children return to classes on Aug. 13.
The Fremont Fire Department was called to the scene at 9:12 p.m. and reached the school at 9:15 p.m., said Erik Peters, firefighter and paramedic.
Heavy black smoke was coming from the equipment. The playground equipment and rubber mulch on the ground was on fire.
Firefighters had the blaze under control in five minutes and applied foam to keep the fire from reigniting, Peters said.
The equipment and about a 20-foot perimeter of rubber and wood mulch sustained damage.
“It melted all the plastic coating off the equipment,” Peters said. “It melted the aluminum poles and collapsed quite a bit of the playground equipment.
“The whole thing’s shot.”
Lt. Ed Watts of the Fremont Police Department said the suspect admitted to setting the fire and no one else was involved.
“The boy admitted to starting the fire, but it’s not clear if he intended to burn the playground equipment or if he just started a fire that got out of control,” Watts said.
Kevin Eairleywine, executive director of human resources and elementary operations, commended Fremont Public Schools staff, first responders and the community for their response to the situation.
Eairleywine said he learned about the fire from Chris Raasch, Bell Field principal. Raasch had been informed by a teacher who was working in the building when the fire started.
About that same time, Eairleywine said his daughter, Emily, showed him a video of the fire on social media.
Eairleywine drove to the school at 1240 E. 11th St.
By then, firefighters had extinguished the blaze.
Eairleywine lauded firefighters and police, who responded so quickly to the scene, and the teacher who reported the fire.
He commended FPS staff.
“We had a great response from our technology department, who came out last night,” he said. “They assisted the police with a review of our security camera footage to help them with their investigation.”
Eairleywine said maintenance staff was at the site at 6:30 a.m. Thursday, cleaning up the area and fencing it off.
Business office staffers were gathering needed information on Thursday morning.
“They were well ahead of the game,” he said.
Eairleywine said FPS has contacted its insurance company and community residents already have asked if they can do anything to help.
“I’m impressed by our community outreach,” he said.
Children also have expressed a desire to help.
Staffers at the Summer Success Academy at Bell Field said one student talked about putting up a lemonade stand to raise money to help replace the equipment.
“One of the little kids said, ‘I have $15 in my bank. I’m going to give the school that.’ It’s so sweet,” Eairleywine said.
The playground equipment included a climbing wall, platforms and a large walkway area.
Eairleywine estimated damage at about $30,000 based on the cost of the most recent preschool equipment and considering this equipment is bigger and the area is larger.
The damaged equipment will need to be removed as will the ground cover, some of which melted and is filled with soot.
“It will be quite a process they’ll have to go through,” Eairleywine said.
While he doubts the equipment will be replaced before school starts, Eairleywine said plans are to have it as quickly as possible.
“The main thing is we’re going to make sure it’s done safely and it’s done in a way that the equipment is good and will protect our kids as they’re playing on it,” he said.
Many children have played on Bell Field equipment throughout the years. One photograph sent to the Fremont Tribune shows children in front of the equipment in 2005. Another shows those same kids just before they graduated in 2015.
Eairleywine noted the importance of the equipment to children in the area.
“It’s a focal point, not just for the school, but for the neighborhood — that’s a local playground for the neighborhood kids,” Eairleywine said, adding, “It’s been taken away temporarily. We’re going to work with the community and get that back up as soon as we can.”