On the morning of March 18, 1998 the winter’s snow was just starting to melt but there had been an ice storm, and the road to camp was covered with ice. At 1:00am, Peter Rau, the caretaker at the time, received a knock at his front door. It was the neighbor, Matt Foskey. “Look out your window! The camp is on fire!” Matt said. From his kitchen window, Peter could see a glow over the whole valley with flames shooting up. He called 911 and then Matt took him down the icy road to camp.
When they pulled into the main parking lot, they could see that the entire lodge was filled with smoke, but the fire was only on the east end of the lodge, not yet touching the newly finished store or the addition that was in the process of being finished. They quickly looked around to see what they could do to slow the fire before the firefighters arrived. Oddly enough for this time of year, there was a garden hose setup by the Kickapoo & Chippewa dorm, so they did what they could to suppress the fire using the hose.
It wasn’t long before the first fire truck arrived on the scene. Unfortunately, the firefighter told Peter that they needed to call the county to get sand spread on the road because of the ice. Another fire truck made it down, but because of how slippery the road was, they decided to have their tankers wait at the top of the hill until the county put sand down.
That night, contrary to the typical direction, the wind was steadily blowing from the east, and was pushing the fire across the lodge. Eventually it reached the point that Peter and Matt could no longer safely fight the fire, so they left their hose and observed the fire from the bell tower. The county was pretty quick in bringing the sand and soon the rest of the fire trucks were able to get down to the lodge.
The firefighters quickly setup a portable water tank, and began fighting the fire, but by then, the structure was already engulfed in flame and their focus was now on preventing it from spreading to the nearby dorm. All Peter and Matt could do was to sit and watch it burn down.
The next morning the fire marshal arrived to determine the cause of the fire. He allowed Peter to follow along as he worked his way through the rubble. He pointed out various clues and explained how things burned and eventually he concluded that the fire started in the utility room on the east side of the lodge. The next question was, what had caused the fire?
He asked Peter about the building’s setup; its water heaters, building heaters etc… There was of course the addition that was added just three years ago, and was just now nearing completion. Before the addition, and before camp extended its operating season from summer only to year round, the buildings were originally heated with a type of electrical radiant heat that was built inside the ceiling’s drywall. It was an old method of heating from when the lodge and the rest of the dorms were built in the early 70s.
When the fire marshal found evidence of electrical burns on some drywall, he began to suspect a failure in the drywall heaters to be the cause of the fire He ask Peter if that type of heating was being used elsewhere on camp grounds. Sure enough, it was also being used in the dorms, so Peter showed him those heaters. The fire marshal was quick to find a little black spot that Peter thought might have been black mold, but when he poked it, it came down like ash. A little more investigation revealed that those heaters had already smoldered at one point, but had not caught the structure on fire.
At that point, it was clear that the cause of the fire was the heaters in the ceiling, and further use of those heaters in the dorms was discontinued.
But what now? Summer camp was supposed to start in 2 months, and with no kitchen, dining hall, or meeting room how will it work? These were the challenges that the board and staff would have to deal with in the coming weeks.