Fires plague county in 1970s, exact causes remain mystery
While many mysterious incidents have occurred in Carbon County, one that spanned a year and a half in the mid-1970s cost a lot of people a great deal of money and continues to haunts some of the individuals involved in the investigation.
Beginning in early March 1974, a series of fires that spanned a 20-month period until October 1975 confounded officials and residents. In the aftermath of the fires, a number of jobs were lost, several structures burned to the ground and Carbon School District had to pay $1.6 million for a new building to house elementary students.
"There were a number of fires that spanned that period of a couple of years," noted Phil Johnson,the police chief at the College of Eastern Utah who was a relatively young Utah Highway Patrol trooper during the 1970s.
Johnson was one of the first authorities to arrive at the scene of the Price Elementary School fire on May 18, 1974. He had responded to a call from another law enforcement officer and, when he arrived, Johnson could see the flames coming out of the building. He drove around the school to determine if anyone was trapped inside and reportedly discovered a broken door glass above the release latch in one of the entrances.
"It just looked like someone had broke it out to get in," noted the former UHP trooper.
The original alarm was sounded by Carbon County Deputy Clifford Baker who was making a patrol of the area. When he spotted the flames, Baker turned in the alarm at 9:50 p.m.
By the end of the night, the 6-year-old school was a total loss and more than 500 students were let go for the summer.
By the following fall, the old Central School on 100 North and 200 East in Price was reopened to accommodate the students until a new building could be built.
Arson was suspected in the school blaze and, after an investigation, the state fire marshal confirmed the belief. It appeared someone had broken in through the doors that Johnson had observed, opened at least one can of duplicating fluid stored near the hallway in the school and lit the building on fire.
The elementary school blaze was not the first major fire nor was it the last to occur during the mid-1970s.
The first in the string of blazes occurred March 2, 1974 at about 8 a.m. at Utah Wholesale Grocery warehouse, located at 100 West 100 South in Price.
The fire was reportedly discovered by Morris Huntington, who was the manager of the warehouse. He apparently entered the building and took an elevator to the basement, where he encountered thick smoke and intense heat. When he started back up, the elevator stopped before reaching the top and he had to kick the doors open to get out.
The blaze leveled the building in the next few hours.
Next door to the warehouse was a cabinet shop and lumber yard that also started burning, but the blaze was quickly extinguished by the Price Fire Department.
The fire burned for a entire day and resulted in $1 million in damage. One month later, the company decided not to rebuild the warehouse or reopen the business operation in different location. A half dozen people lost their jobs and grocery stores as well as cafes in the county lost the only local source of supply, which meant everything had to be brought in for delivery truck from Salt Lake. The situation caused hardship for local cafes which relied on the warehouse to keep small stocks of items on-hand for the eateries.
The exact cause of the blaze was never determined, based on newspaper accounts, but the fire appeared to have begun in the warehouse's furnace room.
Two months later, a fire occurred at the Alpine Motel located west of Price. The fire also broke out in a furnace room, damaging a small house nearby and a number of the units in the motel. Between $10,000 and $15,000 in damage was caused by the third fire reported at the motel in three years . No definite cause was determined.
Two weeks later, the blaze erupted at the Price Elementary School.
Most of the rest of 1974 passed without another major fire at a business or institution. Then on Dec. 13, a fire broke out in a shed at the Dial Equipment and Storage Company on 400 East and 400 South in Price. The fire destroyed the shed and a pickup truck loaded with tools inside the business. The loss was estimated at $10,000. A smudge pot used to heat the building was suspected as the cause, although workers who were in the building that day said the fire in the pot was completely out when they left work.
Five months later, a blaze erupted at the Carbon Ice Cream Company. The fire burned for three days before it was extinguished. The business, located on West Railroad Avenue, was closed so it was suspected at the time the fire started from an electrical problem.
According to newspaper accounts of the incident, the reason it took so long to put out the fire was because of the six inches of sawdust insulation that had been used in the walls of the structure to make it basically one big walk in freezer.
Finally, on Oct. 25, 1975, another fire leveled the old Price Lumber Company in the west part of the city.
Another vacant building was going up in flames when the fire chief at the time, LaMar Jewkes, indicated the night of the blaze that arson was "a near certainty."
The wood frame buildings had been the scene of two other small fires in the previous months. The fire started in the main storage building and the blaze was aided by a wind that was blowing, quickly spreading it through the whole complex. It took about three hours to control the fire which also damaged a hardware store building and threatened fuel storage tanks on the nearby Standard Oil distributors property.
Six major business or large building fires in 20 months in a town the size of Price did not appear to raise any eyebrows of the local officials.
In a final assessment, two of the fires occurring at the warehouse and motel were probably caused by furnace malfunctions, though that was never given as the official cause.
The shed fire and ice cream plant fires were suspicious, but could have been caused by accident or electrical malfunctions.
But the two remaining incidents, the million dollar plus fire at the school and the lumber yard blaze, were almost certainly arson, according to preliminary statements by fire officials.
However, the chain of local fires concluded in controversy, without nary a suspect being arrested or charged and with investigating agencies issuing differing opinions regarding the incidents.
More than one dozen people were questioned in connection with the matter. But at the conclusion of the investigation, the Price police department felt that, based on the eyewitness accounts of the fire at the school, the incident could not have been the result of arson.
The state fire marshal's office, however, had issued a different outcome regarding its the investigation.
The fire marshal's office determined that there was no way the blaze could have started where it did, in the middle of a room at the school, without the fire being of human origin.
A year after the school fire, an editorial in the Sun Advocate raised questions about why the case had not been solved, but then apparently dropped the subject because of the split opinions from the two official agencies. The editorial called the matter a "terribly expensive lesson" for the community.