The Allen School Fire
December 17th, 1963
Allen School was a 14-room school house built in 1931 at the corner of 3rd St. and Franklin St. It was constructed of 400,000 board feet of lumber and was filled with paper, books, musical instruments, desks and anything else one would find inside a school. On December 17th it ceased to exist when it was consumed by fire. The fire was first reported at 2:56 A.M. by Bend Police Officer Herb Maker who was on patrol with Officer Frank Stenkamp. Having passed the school only 5 minutes earlier and not noticing a problem, Officer Maker turned around and began to patrol southbound on 3 rd street when he noticed a massive plume of smoke. He reported his discovery by radio and after getting closer, confirmed that it was in fact the school that was burning.
On duty that morning were Firefighters Johnson, Kelsay, Gann, Anderson, and Wells. 28 Members of the Bend Volunteer Fire Department, as well as all 14 of the departments 16 full-time firefighters quickly began to arrive on scene of the early morning blaze. In spite of their quick arrival, there was nothing the firefighters could do but keep the fire from spreading to surrounding buildings. Eventually, every piece of apparatus owned by the department was on-scene. A stand-by engine, normally kept at the Brooks-Scanlon lumber mill was called to the fire station to answer any other calls that might come in. It was staffed by the only two full-time men not on the school fire. Temperatures were in the 30’s that night and a mild wind blew just hard enough to fan the flames, and spread embers into nearby neighborhoods. Homeowners on Hawthorne and 4th, awakened by the noise, quickly dressed and took action to save their own homes by smothering the embers as they fell about their properties.
Meanwhile, firefighters battled the blaze, employing 2 ½”hose lines and heavy-hitting master streams at the front and rear of the school. The fire eventually spread into the attic of the gymnasium and auditorium. At the time the fire broke out, the chief of the department, Vern Carlon, was at his cabin at Wickiup Reservoir. Filling in for him was Assistant Chief Dick Walter.
Several firefighters operating inside the school narrowly escaped being buried as they were ordered out of the building by Chief Walter less than a minute prior to the roof collapsing. Walters was himself, on the roof at the time. In a 2010 interview with retired Battalion Chief Ray Gann, Gann commented that the hand of God played a role in the fire. He remembered being at the front door of the auditorium when his self- contained breathing apparatus ran out of air. As he was retrieving another air bottle, the roof collapsed. Ray remembers being impressed with Chief Walters’ decision to pull everyone out of and off the building. This decision earned Chief Walter a plaque, the whereabouts of which are unknown**. Meanwhile, the Bend city manager drove up to Wickiup Reservoir to notify Chief Carlon of the fire. Eventually, Carlon made it on scene while the fire was still in progress! Principal Ford Hunnell watched helplessly with tears in his eyes while Chief Carlon continued to coordinate the fire attack.
Two firefighters were injured while fighting the blaze. Assistant Chief Dick Walter was making a hasty retreat off the roof as it began to collapse and sustained varying burns to his wrists and chin. He was rushed to St. Charles hospital by police car. Another “regular” or full-time firefighter, John Schulke had his foot impaled by a nail while walking through fire debris. Vance Barber was also reported to have injured his leg*. All firefighters were treated and released.
The cause of the fire was originally attributed to the schools’ furnace, but after an extensive investigation that included the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s office, evidence was found that pointed to several studs, used to support lathe and plaster, that had been placed directly against the schools chimney stack. Years of contact with the hot surface led to a slow char process, called pyrolysis, which finally resulted in the fire.
**Taken from the minutes of the Regular Meeting of the Bend Volunteer Fire Department:
Jan 6, 1964, meeting called to order by Pres. Churchill.
Commendations to Chief Walter for actions above and beyond the call of duty in protecting the life of a fellow fireman on the Allen school fire, Dec 17, 1963. Chief Carlon presented a replica of the plack (sic) to be made.
Written by Mike Baxter
© Bend Fire History