The aftermath of the Frolic & Rodeo arena grandstand fire. (Photo by Logan Hannigan-Downs/Philomath News)

A devastating fire that burned three bleacher sections at the Philomath Frolic & Rodeo arena overnight Monday and has put this year’s rodeo performances in jeopardy was caused by a propane torch that had been used up to an hour earlier to clear weeds from the area, according to the fire investigator’s conclusion.

Capt. Rich Saalsaa of Philomath Fire & Rescue said the determination had been made following interviews with police, the city manager and arriving firefighters. In short, ideal conditions for ignition of a fire were present.

“If you can imagine, the flames and the heat from that propane torch will extend far beyond what you can actually see under the cracks in the bottom of the little shed that they had back in there, for example,” Saalsaa said, referring to the area below the grandstands. “There’s enough air gap that between leaves and dust — there’s enough to kinda get things set off and because of the recent heat and then you have a little wind that blows across it … things were just right.”

Damages were estimated at $500,000 for property and contents, Saalsaa said.

In a statement posted on its Facebook page, the Frolic & Rodeo said roughly three of the 10 bleacher sections in the arena appear to be unusable.

“Our knee-jerk reaction is that the show must go on, however, the reality is we do not have enough information to know whether or not we will be able to hold the Frolic at the rodeo grounds in two weeks,” the statement reads. “Please be patient as we work with our insurance company, the fire examiner and structural engineer to examine and determine the extent of the damage and what must be done before we can safely invite the public back to the rodeo grounds.”

Burned debris that firefighters pulled out from under the grandstands sits in the grass on Tuesday. (Photo by Logan Hannigan-Downs/Philomath News)

The Frolic & Rodeo put up caution tape around the area and is urging the public to stay away from the structure. The organization’s board was scheduled to meet Tuesday afternoon.

Philomath Fire & Rescue received the call at 10:45 a.m. and arrived at the scene at 10:50 a.m.

Saalsaa said he stepped out of the back door of his home on 10th Street “and could see the flames.” He was right behind the first unit to arrive at the scene.

“Basically, there was fire around that whole area (grandstands) and it was kind of expanding obviously,” he said. “But they put a good stop to it before it got much further — that’s the first thing they did was to stop the progression. But yes, it was pretty well-involved.”

Upon arrival, firefighters had to quickly assess the situation just like any other structure fire.

“When we go on a garage fire, we have no idea what’s in that garage and it’s kind of the same thing here because they have a little shed and they had their riding lawnmower and gasoline and it turns out, some of these barrels that popped off. That raises the concern,” Saalsaa said. “It just got hot very quickly because of the material there.”

The materials included those plastic barrels along with gasoline, which obviously would feed the fire. “There were some barrels used for the rodeo in storage beneath the stands with small amounts of unknown product that was flammable — and rapidly expanded and burst under the flames, which accounted for the explosions heard by eyewitnesses,” Saalsaa said.

Fire-damaged barrels sit under the grandstands. (Photo provided by Philomath Fire & Rescue)

Saalsaa said there seemed to be no real danger of a structure collapse.

“Fortunately, that is pretty heavy timber when it comes to the actual construction of the grandstands,” he said. “So, it probably wasn’t a concern for collapse that way.”

The operation wrapped up at 1:22 a.m. with the departure of the last unit.

Fire & Rescue’s first arrival included an engine company with five people, a truck with two people, two water tenders with two people, and two chief officers. A second alarm was called shortly after arrival.

Assisting were the Corvallis Fire Department (truck), Monroe Fire (engine), Blodgett Fire (tender), Hoskins-Kings Valley Fire (tender), Albany Fire, Alsea Rural Fire and Adair Fire (to stand by at Philomath’s main station).

In addition, the Philomath Police Department was on scene to provide assistance with ensuring citizens who had entered the grounds were kept away from the scene. The Benton County Sheriff’s Office assisted with traffic control, which included closure of South 13th Street from Cedar to Chapel streets because of a fire supply hose that had to be laid down across the road. Pacific Power was also at the scene.

It was the second fire in Philomath this month that resulted from the use of propane torches to clear weeds — the other involving an area in front of a residence. Said Saalsaa, “People should refrain from using torches near combustible items and particularly in hot and windy conditions.”

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.