August 19, 2001 11:00 pm
ALL-CONSUMING: Fire races through a vacant house at 20th and Gekeler streets. The garage sits to the left. (Observer photo/RAY LINKER).
ALL-CONSUMING: Fire races through a vacant house at 20th and Gekeler streets. The garage sits to the left. (Observer photo/RAY LINKER).

By Ray Linker

Observer Staff Writer

Two teen-age boys playing with firecrackers in a field of grass behind a shed are believed to be the cause of a fire that destroyed an 80-year-old La Grande house and its outbuildings Saturday afternoon.

The two-story frame house at the corner of Gekeler Lane and 20th Street, a detached two-car garage, a shed and another smaller outbuilding were burned.

Of the buildings that caught fire, only the charred, gutted house with its roof caved in, remained standing. A barn on the lot which stretches along Gekeler from 20th to 18th Street was saved when firefighters doused the burning grass as flames approached the barn.

Police cited J.W. McIntosh of 210 18th St. and Robert H. Smith of 2505 N Ave., both 15, with reckless burning and recklessly endangering.

The house was listed for sale at $230,000, said Betty Driggers, broker for ERA Driggers. It sat on a 2.12-acre lot.

Winds of 10 mph to 15 mph were blowing across 20th Street toward the buildings from the field where the fire started, and fed the flames to such an extent that a contract pumper was used to douse the buildings and trees there, which are part of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife station.

One of the two boys reported the fire, police said. A fire engine was dispatched at 2:41 p.m., arriving at 2:45 with three La Grande firefighters.

Acting Capt. Allen Periman immediately called in a general alarm, a call for all La Grande area firefighters and equipment to report. An additional pumper and utility vehicle, with six personnel, from La Grande responded.

At 3:11, La Grande Rural Fire Protection District was dispatched, providing two engines and four personnel. The Union Fire Department responded with one engine and two personnel. A contractor with a pumper responded, for a total of 15 personnel and five pumpers at the scene. The contractor, Grayback, put out several spot fires in a field across Gekeler.

The fire raged for almost two hours before there was any semblance of control, first leveling the sheds, then the garage before jumping to the house as sparks flew when a live electrical wire broke loose from the house.

The scene was not cleared of all personnel and equipment until 6:54 p.m.

Only near the end were crews able to go into the house to knock down the walls and cut out the floor to make certain there were no hidden fires.

The house had a slate type of siding which had some asbestos, but that did not present a problem, a fire department spokesman said. The house had been covered with steel siding, which does not burn as readily as aluminum, the spokesman said. There was also an underground gas tank, used in years past for heating the home, but that was empty,

The five-bedroom, one bath house was vacant, but some belongings were still in the house, said Candy Sawyer, who had lived there until about a year ago. She said the house was insured.

My grandfather, Starr Sawyer, built the house in about the 1920s, using wood from the original Island City schoolhouse, she said. It used to flood a lot around here, and there was a pond where the house is now. He pumped out the pond and built the house there.

The house was in the estate of Starr Sawyer.

Starr gave the house to Candys parents, Morris and Cindy Sawyer, Candy said. Saturday, Morris Sawyer was in Portland undergoing back surgery, his granddaughter said.

We lived there for nine years. We built a ramp for our grandmother and all the kids put their hand prints in cement. She died six or seven years ago. We moved across town when we decided to sell the house.

The house had been updated, she said.

We put in new windows and the siding. The kitchen was knotty pine. The house had a basement that leaked and we had to dig a 9-foot hole on the side of the house to seal it.

The Sawyer family used to own a lot of the adjacent property, she said, selling off parts where now there are homes and the Nazarene Church.

The church let us use the field (between the church and 20th Street) to raise alfalfa even after we sold it to them, Candy Starr said.

That stopped last year when the church decided to turn the area into an athletic field and plowed the grass up. There were some weeds growing in the field, but more nearby properties, including the church, would have been threatened had the field been in grass.

The fire proved to be a spectator event for nearby residents who gathered on 20th or 18th or stopped in the church parking lot. Some people across Gekeler were hosing down their dry lawns as the fire burned, but there was no evidence of flying sparks of material.