Crime & Courts

Arson suspected in playground fire at Anchorage elementary school

Equipment at the main playground at Sand Lake's Gladys Wood Elementary School burned Friday night in a suspected arson fire, according to the Anchorage School District.

Heather Marron, a school district spokeswoman, said it will cost at least $125,000 to replace the equipment. The district won't install replacement equipment until after the spring thaw, she said.

School principal Cindy Hemry said district staff removed the damaged playground parts on Saturday and brought in new rubber mulch for the ground.

John See, Anchorage Fire Department spokesman, said flames were reported at the elementary school at 7001 Cranberry St., south of Raspberry Road and west of Northwood Street, around 7:20 p.m. Friday. He said that past history suggests that a person, or a group of people, set the playground ablaze.

"That's why we suspect it probably was an arson rather than accidental," he said.

See said Monday that no one was injured in the playground fire and no suspects had been arrested.

Hemry, the school principal, said she received a text message Friday evening alerting her that something was going on at her school. By the time she got to the building, the fire was out and police and the fire department had already left. The playground's slides had melted and she suspected some of the playground's metal parts were covered in plastic, because they appeared melted too. Hemry said the playground equipment was installed in 2012.

"It makes me sad for the kids at the school and the community. It's always been a place where the community gathers," Hemry said. "It's not just a loss to our students, it's a loss to the entire area."

Hemry said the school had one surveillance camera pointed toward the playground. She said the footage was under review.

Students at Gladys Wood still had outdoor recess Monday and Hemry said she planned to talk with them about the fire. School staff would likely pull out more balls and jump ropes to fill the space of the removed equipment, she said. The school also still has a swingset and a wooden play structure, left unharmed by the flames, she said.

"I hope that we find the person who did this," Hemry said.

The Gladys Wood playground fire was one of several in recent years.

In March, Anchorage police arrested two 18-year-old men who police said left a burning love letter at Bowman Elementary School, igniting the playground. The fire caused nearly $21,000 in damage, according to the school district.

The district also reported a fire at the Williwaw Elementary School playground in July, causing $1,915 in damage, and a fire at the Wonder Park Elementary School playground in May, causing $6,640 in damage.

In 2015, four teens were arrested in June for a fire at the Taku Elementary School playground that caused $57,500 in damage. About two months later, a plastic slide melted and other playground equipment burned when a fire ignited at Alpenglow Elementary School in Eagle River, causing $50,600. A 14-year-old was arrested. Later that month, a fire at the Aquarian Charter School playground caused $604 in damage, according to the district.

Heidi Embley, another school district spokeswoman, said the district needs to balance everyday student safety with potential fire hazards when looking at playground equipment. She said while pebbles would be less flammable than flexible rubber mulch, pebbles would turn into a dense surface in the cold, icy winter, creating more potential for injuries from tripping or falling.

"We look at overall safety for our students," Embley said. "When someone is trying to cause damage, they're going to cause damage."

See asked anyone with information helpful to the investigation of the Gladys Wood fire to contact Anchorage Crime Stoppers at 907-561-STOP or online at www.anchoragecrimestoppers.com

Tegan Hanlon

Tegan Hanlon was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News between 2013 and 2019. She now reports for Alaska Public Media.

Sponsored