The playground at Twin Lakes went up in flames just before 6 p.m. Monday, and Capital City Fire/Rescue firefighters believe it was an act of arson.
Assistant Fire Chief Ed Quinto said CCFR is investigating the fire as having been intentionally set.
Witness reports said the fire spread quickly and then completely engulfed the playground in a matter of minutes. Area resident Marina Lindsey was among those who saw the fire when it first began, and she said it was “very small” when she saw it and that it started in the boat structure. She said she saw several children in the playground at the time, but wasn’t sure if they had any involvement.
“It is so sad,” Lindsey said. “It was such an amazing project.”
No injuries were reported, CCFR confirmed.
“When we got on scene, there was a mother looking for her missing child,” Quinto said. Juneau Police Department officers were able to help her locate the child, whom Quinto described as grade school age, outside of the immediate area of the playground.
Throngs of spectators crowded the area Monday evening, as firefighters knocked down the blaze. The fire began around 5:45 p.m. and was largely extinguished by 6:30 p.m. The fire engines poured water over the playground, which has a rubber ground and many structures that are made out of recycled materials.
“The breeze is not helping at all,” said Assistant Fire Marshal Sven Pearson. “It’s amazing how fast it went up.”
Pearson declined to provide more information about the cause of the fire, saying it remains under investigation.
“It’s like a big tire fire,” Quinto said on scene. “It will be burning for a while.”
The playground appeared almost totally destroyed. Quinto put the damage estimate over $250,000.
A giant plume of black smoke billowed over the area, attracting a crowd of local residents. Many were emotional, and one girl commented she felt like she was watching her childhood go up in flames.
Eight-year-old Eileena St. Clair choked back sobs as she and her mother, Miranda, watched the playground burn.
“I was thinking of coming here, if my mom would let me, so I could fly my kite and my mom could fly the kite I got her,” Eileena said.
Miranda St. Clair said her daughter came to the park once or twice a week, especially because it is a Pokestop for Pokemon Go players.
“She was just here this weekend,” she said, as Eileena chimed in forlornly, “I met new friends.”
“When she was little, she would refuse to leave,” Miranda said. “She would just lay down on the top of one of the castles, on the floor, and I would have to climb all the way up there … and carry her down, kicking and screaming.”
Eileena appeared doubtful the playground could be replaced, asking, “What if they don’t remember how to fix it?”
The playground was built a decade ago as a community project. It was a big undertaking at the time, and volunteers raised the money to fund it.
Catherine Pusich and Melanie Coleman, two of the driving forces behind Project Playground, looked on helplessly as years of work and community involvement went up in flames, nearly 10 years to the day after the playground was built.
“I was here with my friend’s kids just today,” Coleman said. “They had a blast. They were like, ‘This is the best playground ever!’ and I was like, ‘Yes it is.’”
Project Playground was the largest playground the company had ever built, and the longest build at two weeks, Coleman said. Leathers & Associates worked with Juneau schoolchildren to incorporate their ideas into the playground design.
“It was 12 hours a day, six days a week,” Coleman said of the build. “People came, and they came willingly. … We were all in it for the kids.”
Pusich had just been finishing the proofing on a new set of permanent signs that were to be installed in time for the park’s 10-year anniversary, that would tell the story of how the park was built and list all the donors.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Pusich said. “It’s just devastating. … The community has lost so much. The younger generation doesn’t know how much was involved. This was a community effort, two and a half years of planning, two weeks of building, every day. This was more than a playground. “
Multiple GoFundMe pages were up almost as soon as the word got out, with $3,350 raised within two hours on one; there also are Facebook pages that have been set up, including one by Rep. Justin Parish with more than 360 members within a few hours.
Pusich said that if all the actual costs of the Project Playground were tallied, including donated materials and labor, she would estimate the loss at around $1 million.
“You can’t get that back overnight,” she said. “I know what (rebuilding) will involve. … I believe Juneau will rise to the challenge.”
James Brooks contributed reporting to this story.
• Contact reporter Liz Kellar at email@example.com or 523-2272.