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Fire at Old St. Joe’s Playground Was Intentional, Police Say; Two Arrested

A children's playground area next to a grassy field and a white clapboard church

At 1:20am last Thursday, July 18, Nome’s Volunteer Fire Department responded to an active fire at Old St. Joe’s playground. Though fire crews were able to control the blaze and minimize the extent of the damage, Nome Police say the incident was not accidental.

According to Mike Henzlement, NPD’s deputy chief, two individuals were arrested in this case, Christopher Gandia and an unnamed juvenile. Henzlement says he is prohibited from releasing personal information about those under 18 years old.

Henzlement explains the exact charges against them.

“The official titles of the arrest, the charges specifically, were criminal negligent burning in the second degree and failure to control or report dangerous fire.”

The source of the alleged criminally negligent fire was a set of rubber tires inside the playground area. Henzlement says the damage from the blaze was limited to those tires and part of a fence near Old St. Joe’s.

“Well, the extent of the damage was approximately $2,000, and I’m not sure on the duration (of the fire). I can only guess. But I would have to say it was about an hour or so, if I had to guess.”

Interim City Manager John Handeland weighed in on the incident during Monday night’s City Council meeting, saying the fire could’ve been a lot worse.

“Public Works got in there and did some clean up, but it could’ve been much more serious. Tires burn, and rubber burning is certainly smoky, and if it hadn’t been for a quick response, we could have had something major going there in the middle of town.”

Handeland couldn’t find a more appropriate descriptor, but he says there are several hoodlums running around town wreaking havoc by vandalizing property and setting fires like this one.

According to Henzlement, last Thursday’s fire near Old St. Joe’s is not connected to the blaze started at 103 East 4th Avenue back in April.

The Alaska Court System website is not showing a record of these charges against Gandia, but Henzlement says his charges in this case have been sent to the District Attorney’s office and the juvenile’s charges have been forwarded to the Division of Juvenile Justice.

Image at top: Old St. Joe’s Playground, Nome, July 24, 2019. Photo: Davis Hovey, KNOM.

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