A 17-year-old Grantsville High student set a Dumpster full of paper on fire outside his school in the wee hours of a winter morning in 1984. Like most fires, it started small.
But by the time the blaze burned itself out, the high school and virtually everything in it - from desks and books and chalkboards to the panoply of memorabilia that defines a school's tradition - were gone.It didn't have to happen.
To be sure, it was an arson fire. But the arsonist set another trash bin afire at another school the same night, and it went no farther than the Dumpster.
The Grantsville High blaze, however, started under an overhang that quickly ignited. From there, because the building lacked basic structural fire protections required by state law - such as retrofitted fire walls and windows designed to slow the prog-ress of a blaze by hours - the fire raged unchecked once it got into the attic area, which was built of wood.
The blaze finally stopped when it hit the school's one fire wall on the gymnasium, the only part of the 17-year-old school building not reduced to cinders.
Several firefighters suffered smoke inhalation during the fire, but because it started at 2 a.m., no students were injured. In fact, no student has ever been killed or injured in a school fire in Utah, said John T. Elder, deputy state fire marshal.
"But that doesn't mean they couldn't be. People have died in school fires in other states," Elder said, adding that at least 15 fires per month occur in Utah schools. There are probably more, he said, but in many instances, school principals don't report small, quickly extinguished fires. Fire safety problems in Utah schools have not escaped the notice of lawmakers. Nearly 20 years ago, in 1973, the Legislature, concerned that no one was watching to see that schools were being built according to the fire code, decided to add all the state's schools to the list of institutions the state fire marshal's staff inspects.
It was a sizable addition - especially since the legislation didn't come with the funding to make it work.
The state fire marshal only has four inspectors. They are responsible for fire-safety evaluations of the state's 5,000 buildings as well as all Utah's hospitals, jails, prisons and nursing homes. Schools and colleges added another 1,400 buildings to the inspectors' list.
One person is available to inspect all the schools in the state.
Dutifully, the fire marshal sent the inspector out when the 1973 Legislature decreed he do so. The results were staggering. There wasn't enough money in the state to take care of the problems the inspections uncovered, Elder said.
The problem has grown. Neither Elder nor State Fire Marshal Lynn Borg would hazard a guess as to how much money it would take to bring the state's schools up to code - considered an impossible task in the schools built before the adoption of current fire codes.
"We've got some serious problems in the schools, especially in some of the older ones. Most of the districts we go into recognize that we have a serious life-safety problem," Borg said.
"The liability scares me - it scares me to death," he said. "We've had a list of all the deficiencies of all the schools in the state since 1973, and we're still dealing with that list. We could have a terrible disaster right here in the Salt Lake Valley."
If an inspector cites a school for a fire hazard, he has to take it on faith that the school's administrators will take care of the problem. With his work load, there is no way the inspector can get back to follow up in less than two years.
Financial realities prompted suspension of the fire code's "cure time" provision - the section requiring any infraction to be fixed within 18 months of identification.
To help schools help themselves, the fire marshal set up a pilot fire-safety program in the state's four largest districts. They now have staffers trained to do their own inspections.
However, Borg said, "If you went around right now and checked out a dozen high schools around the state, you'd find alarm systems that aren't working."
In late April, Borg attended a national conference of state fire marshals. After swapping stories with them, he came to the conclusion that Utah has been lucky not to have more school-fire disasters.
The luck could hold. Or it might not.
"It's a serious problem, but money's tough - unless there's a crisis," Borg said. "People don't think about fire safety until you have a school full of kids killed. We go to the Legislature every year for people and deputies, and we get turned down every year. If we lose a hundred kids in a school, you know and I know there would be changes. There would be money available."
In Wyoming, the state fire marshal has mandated that all schools be brought to minimum codes, or be shut down. This approach is gaining popularity around the country, Borg said.
"In some of the states, that's what it's come down to - shutdowns. That's the tough way to do it," he said. "It's pretty tough to close schools - where are you going to put the kids? I shut a school down in San-pete County back in 1974. It created havoc."