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Blaze destroys Lander Community Center
Firefighters worked to save the 9,518-square-foot Lander Community Center on Thursday. The blaze was reported at 5:30 p.m., and more than 50 volunteer firefighters appeared on the scene to extinguish the fire. Crews worked overnight to put out hot spots, and the building continued to smolder Friday. Photos by Anne McGowan

Blaze destroys Lander Community Center

Jun 29, 2012 - By Christina George, Staff Writer

The fire was reported at 5:30 p.m. and crews remained on the scene throughout the night putting out warm spots.

The decades-old Lander Community Center was demolished by fire late Thursday.

The 9,518-square-foot log facility that has housed community functions over the years continued to smolder Friday as firemen began putting the puzzle pieces together to determine what caused one of the town's most prominent buildings to be engulfed by flames.

"Our department's investigator, Donny Reed, is on scene now," said Lander fire administrator Nick Hudson on Friday. "We do not have a preliminary cause at this time. ... We do know it started on the front porch."

According to the Fremont County Sheriff's dispatch log, police received a call at 5:30 p.m. Thursday concerning a fire on the front porch of the Lander Community Center on Buena Vista Drive.

The Lander Volunteer and Rural fire departments were the first to arrive on scene.

Hudson said more than 50 volunteer firefighters responded to the blaze from departments in Lander, Riverton, Hudson, Fort Washakie and Morton/Kinnear. Also on scene were personnel from the Fremont County Fire Protection District, Lander Police Department and Fremont County Ambulance.

The Fremont County Sheriff's Office and Wyoming Highway Patrol worked traffic control along Buena Vista Drive for several hours as well.

"Considering we got the call at 5:30 p.m. when a lot of people are just getting off work, I would say we had a spectacular response," Hudson said. "We couldn't have done it without the other volunteers in the county."

There were several fire apparatuses in use, including 10 structure engines, the city's fire ladder, a water tinder and a fire support unit that helped supply support air for firefighters.

Firefighters started to be released from the incident at roughly 11 p.m., with eight remaining on site throughout the night.

"They were on standby putting out fires. There were warm spots that kept starting up," Hudson said.

No one was injured in the structure fire. There was a dog inside one of the rooms when the fire broke out, but it was later found.

Water problem

Nearly two hours into fighting the fire, Hudson said the water source had to be switched from the city's system to ditch water.

"We got a call from the water treatment operator saying we were using a lot of water, and he couldn't get the tanks filled fast enough," Hudson said. "By 8 o'clock, we were no longer using city water."

Although fire crews had stopped using city water, residents in some areas reported losing water. Hudson said it was because the water levels in the tanks were so low, and there was not enough pressure to get water to some houses.

By 10 a.m. Friday, all residences had access to water, but city officials have ordered no unnecessary watering and no outside water use until further notice.

"A lot of the concern is if we have another fire," city clerk Robin Griffin said.

Onlookers

For hours, people gathered on the golf course and along Buena Vista Drive watching with sad faces as destructive flames overtook the facility. A black plume of smoke hovered over the structure fire for several hours.

One of the onlookers was Jack Stephenson, of Lander, who made the initial 911 call.

Standing in the parking lot and watching firefighters combat the flames, Stephenson recounted what transpired when he first arrived at the center.

He said he got there at around 5:15 p.m. to assist with cleaning for an upcoming event. The center is used for a variety of activities, and Stephenson is responsible for getting the building cleaned up and ready between events.

Walking up the front steps, he said he could smell smoke but attributed it to residents in the nearby neighborhoods grilling dinner.

"It smelled like a barbecue, so I just walked in," he said.

Stephenson began working in the facility's main room, and about 15 minutes later he said he heard a loud noise at the front door.

"It didn't sound like a knock," he said.

Walking through the front lobby, he looked at the front entrance and saw a terrifying sight.

"The door was on fire," he said. "There were flames."

Stephenson ran back to the main room to call 911.

"I saw smoke coming from the ceiling," he recalled.

He rushed out a side door and circled around to the front to try and retrieve his pickup truck. He wasn't able to retrieve his red F-150 Ford that was parked directly in front of the entrance.

"By the time I got outside and got to the front, the whole front area was on fire," he said.

A staple in the community for many decades, the center was filled with memories of the many functions held in it over the years.

"This has been here longer than I have, and I have been here for 68 years," said Lander Mayor Mick Wolfe. "My wife and I have danced a lot of dances here."

Melissa Hart, a former Lander resident in town visiting family, said she had her wedding reception at the center.

"It's sad," she said, shaking her head.

Police chief Jim Carey said that one citation was issued at the fire scene and another is pending further investigation.

He said Kevin Rhodes, 37, of Lander, ran over a 5-inch water hose in a utility truck while leaving the fire around 7 p.m.

"It was extremely dangerous to drive over a fire hose," Carey said.

The chief declined to comment about the pending citation.

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