Pyro Vandals Plague Parks Facilities in Modesto

Tabatha Wethal Headshot
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Courtesy of Modesto Parks

Parks officials in a California community said they are hoping to promote positive uses of its amenities and facilities after multiple fires in recent years have destroyed public property. 

The City of Modesto Parks, Recreation & Neighborhoods department said an early morning fire July 21 that burned down the American Legion Memorial Hall in Modesto’s airport neighborhood is one of several in recent years that have damaged parks and recreation facilities.

Officials told the Modesto Bee that they can recall about six fires over the last couple of years that caused damage to the city’s recreation facilities. The told the newspaper they're hopeful that the city’s strategy of promoting positive uses in its parks eventually will drive out the negative uses.

There were fires at the Downey Community Park restroom in July 2019, another fire in August 2020 that caused extensive damage at the Dryden Park Golf Course clubhouse, a fire on July 2021 at the outbuilding at the McClure Mansion, and a fire in 2019 at American Legion Memorial Hall annex, which was known as the Little Legion Hall. The annex was beyond repair and was demolished.

There also was an arson fire at the American Legion Memorial Hall in 2021.

294811695 548139093614957 4823707805982624371 NCourtesy of Modesto Parks

The Modesto Bee reported that this year, a man experiencing homelessness set fire to clothing, trash and other debris on the concrete pad by the exit in the back of the King-Kennedy Memorial Center, scorching the exit’s awning. The awning was used by multiple people who would sleep on the roughly 3-by-5-foot pad for shade in the summer and protection from rain in the winter.

West Modesto Community Collaborative executive director Perfecto Munoz told the Bee that staff members asked the homeless not to gather there because they block the exit, creating a safety hazard. The collaborative runs the King-Kennedy Memorial Center on behalf of the city.

“We were totally surprised someone would do that,” Munoz said about the King-Kennedy fire. “This is someone we had asked to move his stuff.” Munoz said another homeless person identified the man who set the fire, and police arrested the suspect.

There also have been numerous fires in Tuolumne River Regional Park. They include one July 2 when someone set fire to a Modesto Police Department surveillance vehicle and surrounding vegetation. Police arrested a 34-year-old Modesto man, who is not homeless, on suspicion of arson.

The American Legion Memorial Hall is in Tuolumne River Regional Park, a space of more than 500 acres that runs for seven miles along the river from Mitchell to Carpenter roads. 

The park is a partnership among Modesto, Ceres and Stanislaus County. Modesto manages the park, and that includes the memorial hall. The nearly 4 a.m. fire destroyed the interior of the building and its rear deck, which overlooks the river. The building’s exterior walls are cinder blocks and withstood the flames.

Officials have said the fire remains under investigation but they are looking at a human cause based on where they believe it started. Investigators are looking at homeless people because of the large number of them who sleep and gather near the hall. And while officials suspect a human cause, they have said they don’t know whether the fire was an accident, such as a cooking fire that got out control, or deliberate. 

295297620 548139096948290 5274112065861275827 NCourtesy of Modesto Parks

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