Eugene loses historic landmark in Civic Stadium inferno

James Richardi was sitting at his computer when his neighbor knocked on his sliding glass door. She told him he needed to get out – there was a fire.

Richardi, who lives directly behind the stands at Civic Stadium, heard a crackling sound and thought it could be fireworks. But when he stepped outside, he saw an inferno.

“I could feel the heat,” Richardi said. “I never thought stands would burn so hot and so fast.”

At 5:27 p.m., Eugene emergency personnel responded to a fire at Civic Stadium on East 20th Avenue and Willamette Street. Two hours later, the Eugene Police Department sent out a press release announcing the fire was under control. Some nearby residences were evacuated, but there were no injuries.

Two minutes earlier, across Amazon Parkway, South Eugene High School’s summer baseball team was playing. Their coach, Danny Sales, noticed a small flame between the press box and home plate at Civic Stadium immediately called 9-1-1.

A minute later, when the dispatch operator got on the line, the flame started spreading.

“I was shocked by how fast it was going,” Sales said.

As Sales was telling the operator the situation, the fire spread to the infield.

“I was changing my story as I was talking,” he said. “Finally, I said ‘You guys need to get down here.”

Eugene Fire Chief Randall Groves said the fire is currently under investigation, and that they hope to have answers in the next couple days, “but this will take a while to investigate.”

Groves said the plan to contain fire was a “defensive” one.

“What was already on fire was a loss,” Groves said. “At that point, we’re trying to keep the community and the people, people at the scene, and the firefighters as safe as possible.”

By 6:15, the fire had been contained to the stands. At that point, most of the seats had burned down. EPD restricted access by car to Willamette Street between East 18th Avenue and Amazon Parkway, and a perimeter was set up for onlookers to stand behind.

Groves referred to the hot, dry conditions of the past week as possessing “high fire danger.”

However Groves also said the fire, which reached “twice the height of the structure,” was a “contained instance” that had nothing to do with the hot weather or the mass amounts of brown brush in the outfield at Civic Stadium.

When Richardi, 73, first saw the flames, he thought of the 1974 film “Towering Inferno.”

“The old movie, you know? It was just like that,” he said.

Across the Willamette River, another baseball team was at play. The Eugene Emeralds, who played at Civic Stadium for 40 years, walked off on a game-winning single against the Tri-City Dust Devils, 5-4.

Emeralds General Manager Allan Benavides, who helped with the team’s 2010 transition to PK Park, was excited about the win. Then, he got phone calls telling him Civic Stadium was on fire. Benavides is also a member of the Eugene Civic Alliance – a private non-profit that helped buy the rights to Civic in hopes of renovating it in May.

“We’re heart broken that this happened,” he said.

Still, as he looked out on the fire, Benavides thought of the property’s intended future. Lane United, a professional development men’s soccer team based in Springfield, planned on moving to Civic Stadium next year.

“The thing is,” Benavides said, “that’s still all going to happen. It’s just turned into a new project.”

But for the south Eugene community, seeing the 77-year-old stadium go down in flames was more than the loss of a venue.

“I feel a deep sense of loss,” Groves said. “I’ve come here for years to watch ballgames. I brought my kids here for many years. It’s a sad day for our community.”

Bayley Sandy co-wrote this post. Will Denner and Jack Heffernan contributed additional information. 

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Joseph Hoyt

Joseph Hoyt

Joseph is in his third year as a sports reporter at the Emerald. If you have any questions for the reporter, email Joseph at [email protected]