A huge fire tore through Petrie Hall at Heritage University on Sunday afternoon, destroying the cafeteria, kitchen, bookstore and several computer labs as former and current staff watched in shock.
Firefighters don’t know yet what caused it, but the university custodian who first called the fire department said he saw smoke coming from near the espresso machine or some other kitchen apparatus around noon.
More than 60 firefighters from nine different fire stations were called to the scene, and had several hose lines turned on the blaze at once in an effort to contain it.
The fire spread rapidly along the roof from the northeast corner of Petrie Hall, which sits on the corner of Fort Road and South McKinley Road in Toppenish. Firefighters battled flames shooting at least 10 feet into the sky while sweating under their heavy suits in the 100-degree weather.
As of 3 p.m. Sunday, the fire was far from contained; fire personnel had to move their trucks away from where they’d parked near the building to keep them out of harm’s way.
“It has moved very quickly,” said Capt. Joel Byam from Fire District 5. “It’s a school building so it’s full of school supplies -- school books, paper ... a lot of products that put out a lot of heat once it starts burning.”
The heat from the fire could be felt across the street from the building as the flames crackled audibly. Large pieces of ash joined a tall black column of smoke as a light breeze moved through the area.
John Bassett, Heritage University president, said they have plenty of backups for the data and systems stored in the computer lab, but it’s still going to take a long time to get things like email and admission records back up and running.
“It looks like it’s getting worse,” he observed from outside the school’s chain-link fence. “If the building comes down, I can’t do anything about it, but I want them to contain it so it doesn’t get to any other building.”