It was heartbreak all over again for Hermiston on Friday.
Mayor David Drotzmann stood in front of the blackened Funland playground at Butte Park, hours after a fire tore through the wooden structure that was rebuilt in 2001 after fire destroyed the original playground built in 1996. It was the saddest day of his career as mayor, Drotzmann said in a video message he posted to Twitter.
“One thing’s for sure,” he said. “Hermiston’s a great community. We’ve rebuilt this before. We will rebuild it again. You can’t slow down our spirit. You can’t squelch our pride. We’re a great community, we care about our kids. This park is important to us and we will once again rebuild it from the ashes.”
The mixture of grief and resilience matched responses from the rest of the community. On Monday night, Hermiston residents showed up in full force to let the city know in no uncertain terms that they were willing to do whatever it takes to rebuild.
Sue Daggett volunteered the help of the Altrusa Club. Tami Rebman of the Columbia Basin Board of Realtors said they were on board to help however they could. Phillip Spicerkuhn, president of the Lions Club, said the Lions were “passionate about helping make sure this resource continues to be a part of the community.” David McCarthy, president of the Hermiston noon Kiwanis Club, offered similar assurances.
“This is the kind of project both our money and our work likes to go to,” McCarthy said.
He shared a story of when he first began dating his wife, before he lived in Hermiston. When he visited her, one of the first things she showed him about the community was her family’s name engraved on a wooden slat at Funland in recognition of their contributions toward the project.
Tony Garber of the Rotary Club said Rotarians were ready to help as well. He shared memories of taking the various youth sports teams he has coached to the park for after-game celebrations. His wife, a physical therapist, often takes young patients there and watches them play to assess their mobility.
“It’s amazing how many different types of people are there,” he said.
The cause of the fire that started about 2:45 a.m. on Friday is still under investigation, but most people who talked about rebuilding assumed it was human-caused.
The fire that burned the original playground on July 28, 2001 was ruled an act of arson, but no arrests were ever made. Hermiston Police Chief Jason Edmiston said the department had a “prime suspect” at the time but was never able to gather enough evidence to arrest the person. He said police and the fire marshal were working hard to gather evidence.
“It’s very much an uphill battle for us, but we have solved uphill battles before,” he said.
Parks and recreation director Larry Fetter told the Hermiston Herald that the city was interested in rebuilding a playground that retained the character of the first two iterations but were made out of compressed plastic, metal or other non-wood materials. He also said the new playground would have fewer places where people could hide from view and would have an improved security camera system.
“I’m very interested in replacing it with materials that are non-combustible,” he said. “It’s just too heartbreaking to go through it again.”
He said the city would be getting some insurance money but it wasn’t clear yet how much that would be. It was also yet to be determined how much could be salvaged from the park, but Fetter said more than half the playground was obviously a total loss and much of the section that was not blackened had still been damaged by heat.
The original Funland was a community project built in 1996, built by volunteers and predating the city’s parks and recreation department. After the fire in July 2001, insurance paid out $345,000, the city donated $10,000 and the community raised thousands more before coming together to build the park in six days during March 2002.
Many people who helped build that version are still living in Hermiston. During Monday’s city council meeting, Charlie and Carol Clupny, who were instrumental in building the first two playgrounds, urged the council to include community members — particularly children — from start to finish.
Carol, who was on the executive committee for the past playgrounds, said it was amazing how much the projects had united the community.
“We had superintendents working alongside dropout kids,” she said. “I think the volunteer aspect is really important to bring people together.”
Charlie was a captain over several crews of volunteers during the 1996 and 2001 builds. He said his crews involved everyone from mothers and children to National Guard members and inmates.
He got choked up when talking about Friday’s fire.
“I haven’t been over to Funland yet because what burnt is what I was in charge of building,” he said. “... I never thought in my lifetime we were going to be building another one of those again.”
On Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon hundreds of volunteers from local churches will be cleaning up litter, restoring flood-damaged sections of Riverfront Park and doing other beautification around town as part of the annual I Love My City event.
While it is too soon to put those volunteers to use demolishing the burned playground, Pastor Terry Haight said that he would be asking participants of a follow-up worship service on Sunday to give a “love offering” toward rebuilding Funland. Last year’s service drew about 1,200 worshippers. This year’s is at 10 a.m. at the Eastern Oregon Trade and Event Center.
The city is also accepting donations at city hall. On Monday the council agreed that they should put together a steering committee of city councilors and community members as quickly as possible and then use that committee to research options and gather community input. Fetter said his goal was to have plans for the new park done by October and ground broken next February.
Mayor David Drotzmann thanked everyone for their generosity, noting he had hoped to see his future grandchildren play at Funland.
“This community rises to the occasion when it comes to children,” he said. “I think we will have no problem reaching whatever target we need to reach to rebuild.”