OLYMPIA – An apparent anti-police arsonist entered the new City Hall, used some kind of chemical accelerant and set fire to a stack of construction materials, causing an undetermined amount of damage and setting back a $35.6 million project that had been on schedule.
Firefighters were called to the four-story building under construction in the 600 block of Fourth Avenue East at 5:34 a.m. Thursday. They put the fire out within minutes, but the damage was done. The fire, though confined to one room, spread smoke through the building, blackening new drywall. It also melted wiring on the first and second floors.
It’s unclear when the fire was started, but it was after workers had quit for the day on Wednesday.
The fire was set in what will become the police department’s squad room, said Rick Dougherty, project manager for the new City Hall.
“(Expletive) PIGS” was spraypainted in red on one of the walls outside the room where the fire started.
“To think it was caused by someone deliberately is really disappointing,” City Manager Steve Hall said. “We don’t know a whole lot yet about how it started … or when.”
No one at the scene was injured. Police were investigating the fire as suspicious.
Construction workers arriving on the job Thursday morning discovered the blaze and called 911. The Olympia Fire Department was dispatched at 5:34 a.m. and arrived at 5:37 a.m. The fire was reported out at 5:49 a.m.
An estimate of the damage probably won’t be ready until today, Dougherty said. Investigators were expected to be on the site Thursday from insurance companies for both the city and the contractor, Hoffman Construction.
Dougherty said he didn’t want to speculate about how long the fire would set the project back. No work was done on the site while fire and police departments investigated. City employees were expected to move into the new City Hall at the beginning of next year.
Dougherty said it was the second attempt in two days to set a part of the site ablaze. On Wednesday, a Hoffman employee discovered that someone had tried to set fire to a construction trailer where the company has makeshift offices. The small fire singed the corner of the trailer but did no significant damage.
Cmdr. Tor Bjornstad said police had been made aware of that fire, and had stepped up patrols Wednesday night in the area. He said police would remain on alert. Private security and surveillance cameras may be brought in, he said.
Such anti-police sentiments are not uncommon among vandals.
“We get a lot of anti-police graffiti,” Bjornstad said.
Dougherty said that there have been minor incidents of vandalism at the site before — some construction signs tagged or stolen. But nothing serious.
“It’s a rough neighborhood,” he said. The new City Hall is being built there, in part, to change that, he said.
The fire won’t affect plans for street improvements around the building, Dougherty said. The right-turn-only lane on Fourth Avenue to Plum Street will remain closed from Jefferson Street to just past the Chestnut Street intersection. Parking on the south side of Fourth Avenue between Jefferson Street and Plum Street will be restricted.
By Thursday afternoon, police still had no suspects, Bjornstad said.
“I think our best hope is a tip of some kind,” he said.