RANDY PENCH / rpench@sacbee.com

A fire burned the wooden play structure at McKinley Park early Saturday.

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East Sacramento residents begin fundraising to rebuild McKinley Park play structure

Published: Tuesday, Jul. 31, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012 - 8:38 am

Back when Cecily Hastings was a new mother trying to collect thousands of dollars to build a better play structure at McKinley Park, she had to rely on word of mouth.

"I think it was woman-to-woman networking," said Hastings, whose infant inspiration at the time is now 22 years old. "That's the way you had to do it back then."

How old fashioned.

As Hastings and her east Sacramento neighbors are facing another fundraising bout to rebuild a popular play structure destroyed by fire over the weekend, the Internet – via Facebook, Twitter, several websites and PayPal – are sure to play big roles in the effort.

Already, one fledgling nonprofit, East Sac Give Back, has raised more than $2,000. And Michael Saeltzer, the local resident behind that effort, said he fielded a call from one of the structure's original designers offering up materials to help rebuild.

"To me, that was absolutely profound – that somebody in New York somehow got the news about this play structure and is willing to reconnect to offer assistance," said Saeltzer, 46. "That's across the entire nation."

Early Saturday morning, firefighters raced to east Sacramento's Mc-Kinley Park as the pine fortress beloved by children citywide went up in flames. Early in the investigation, fire officials said they had not ruled out an accident, but suspected the blaze was caused by a human.

As of Monday, however, no suspects had been identified.

According to a pair of arson experts, play structures are easy, and popular, targets for budding arsonists.

"Because playgrounds are vacated at a certain time, … they become good targets for fire-setters in their early stages," said Tom Fee, a retired arson investigator and business manager for the California Conference of Arson Investigators.

John Barsdale, an arson investigator with the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District, said arsonists often transition from grass or Dumpster fires to structure fires, playgrounds included.

"Generally, these types of fires are not the first fire that the person(s) have set," Barsdale wrote in an email to The Bee. "It's just the first fire that draws attention to their fire-setting activity."

Another common culprit in these playground fires is the "typical juvenile prankster showoff individual who is just an opportunist," not a serial arsonist, Fee said. "So he's not graduating from anything, doesn't give a whole lot of thought to what the consequences will be."

Barsdale said arsons like the one at McKinley Park are difficult to solve, in part because they often occur at night when few, if any, witnesses are around. Surveillance cameras, which often produce critical evidence in such cases, can be strong deterrents, he said.

The play structure that was destroyed Saturday was built in 1994 by 2,500 volunteers supervised by Ithaca, N.Y.–based Leathers & Associates, said Hastings, now 56.

Community members raised $80,000 to contribute to the cost of the structure, which Councilman Steve Cohn said was hundreds of thousands of dollars. Hastings said half of that $80,000 came from fundraising efforts, including the sales of decorative tiles still covering a wall in the park. The city matched that $40,000.

Like most playground structures, this one was expected to last 15 to 20 years, so neighbors had already begun talking about the need to prepare for the day the structure would need to be replaced.

Still, the weekend's news was heartbreaking.

"It was very sad," Hastings said. "You just wonder about the special place in hell for somebody who would do something like that."

As co-founder of Friends of East Sacramento, Hastings has overseen community efforts to maintain the park's famed rose garden, as well as ongoing efforts to raise money to keep the Clunie Community Center open in the wake of the city's budget woes.

Cohn said city officials are not yet sure how much insurance money will be put toward rebuilding the structure, nor do they know how much money they can funnel from the cash-strapped parks department.

Regardless, residents will need to pitch in: The last play structure built in the city – "Fort Natomas," rebuilt in 2008 after two arsons – cost $1 million.

Cohn is encouraging donations through Gifts to Share, a nonprofit organized to support city-sanctioned projects.

Anyone with information about the case is asked to call the Sacramento Fire Department's arson tip line at (916) 808-8732.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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