Law enforcement officers later arrested two men believed to be responsible for breaking into the building and setting it ablaze. Firefighters were called to the scene shortly after 4 a.m. and battled the fire for approximately two hours before bringing it under control, officials said. No injuries were reported.
Later that same morning, Blanding residents Deven W. White, 19, and Christopher Stolzer, 22, were arrested and booked into jail on suspicion of multiple felony charges of burglary and arson, according to a news release from the San Juan County Sheriff’s office.
Officials indicated that while both suspects are former students of San Juan High School, no clear motive for setting the fire has yet been established other than the suspects apparently were angry with the school for some reason.
Evidence gathered at the scene and information from other sources reportedly led investigators to the two suspects, who remained in custody at the San Juan County Jail as of Wednesday.
San Juan County Sheriff Rick Eldredge said the men are also suspected of other recent break-ins and vandalism incidents at the high school, as well as at nearby Albert R. Lyman Middle School.
San Juan School District officials closed school for SJHS students and staff Monday and Tuesday of this week (the remainder of the week was the already-scheduled Thanksgiving holiday) while investigators and cleanup crews worked to assess and repair the damage.
The fire was apparently started inside the media center using some sort of liquid accelerant, officials said. The library and its contents, including all books, computers, other media, and furniture, were deemed a total loss. Officials put preliminary damage estimates at around $1 million.
Nevertheless, school officials expressed gratitude that the fire didn’t do more damage than it did.
“It has been determined that the majority of the building is not damaged, and, after a thorough cleaning, school can be held in most locations within the building without any alteration,” San Juan School District Superintendent Doug Wright wrote in a letter posted on the district’s website Nov. 18.
Wright said that in addition to the library, the damaged areas of the building include three classrooms and a lab room located near the library.
He said the displaced classes will likely be moved to undamaged rooms within San Juan High or to other nearby facilities, such as a former LDS seminary building that is now used as the school district’s conference center.
“While there will be some inconvenience, it will be minor,” Wright added.
School is expected to be back in session Monday, Nov. 26. Approximately 400 students attend San Juan High School.
The superintendent also thanked the responding agencies, including the Blanding Fire Department, Blanding City Police, San Juan County Sheriff, the Monticello and Bluff fire departments, the San Juan School District maintenance staff, and local contractors and citizens “who assisted in any way in putting out the fire, apprehending the individuals responsible, and beginning the process of putting the school back together.”
In the days following the fire, efforts to assist the school in its recovery from the fire have extended well beyond the town of Blanding.
At Moab’s Grand County High School, members of the student government have spearheaded a fundraiser to help the Red Devils’ traditional arch-rivals. GCHS student body president Torrie Lopez rallied for the cause during a faculty meeting Monday, saying, “They need our help to cover the cost of anything that isn’t covered by insurance.”
In just two days of school this week, GCHS students have already collected a sizable amount of change and currency in four large empty water jugs, each bearing the name of a staff member: principal Stephen Hren, associate principal Lance LeVar, math teacher Ed DeFrancia, and social studies teacher Hal Adams. By the end of next week, the “winning” staff member with the most money in their jug will have to kiss a pig, according to a challenge issued by the students.
A grass-roots relief effort based in Blanding, dubbed the SJHS Phoenix Project, has also been gathering donated items and supplies for the school. Those interested in helping are asked to email email@example.com.
Another show of support has come from the Utah Education Association, along with High Desert Uniserv and the UEA Children at Risk Foundation, which have created a “San Juan Fire Fund” to raise money to reimburse affected teachers for any losses not covered by insurance.
“It’s devastating for a school and a community to suffer a loss like this,” said UEA executive director Mark Mickelsen. “Our hearts go out to the students and teachers as they work to rebuild their school.”
Donations may be sent to the UEA Children at Risk Foundation, 875 E. 5180 South, Murray, UT 84107, or to the San Juan Educational Foundation, 200 N. Main, Blanding, UT 84511.