Update: Fire temporarily shuts down Highlands Playhouse shows

Theater goers for the last week of Oklahoma! at The Highlands Playhouse will see a different backdrop and props for the remaining performances.

Gone are the bales of straw on stage which were used as the barn backdrop.

Highlands Fire & Rescue received a call at 9:22 a.m. Sunday morning for a structure fire next door at the Highlands Playhouse located at 362 Oak Street, which is between the HFR and the Highlands Police department. 

Firefighters get ready to enter the burning building that serves as a set workshop behind the Highlands Playhouse.

Playhouse Artistic Director Bill Patti was on a phone call in the parking lot when he saw smoke coming from the building to the rear of the Box Office and immediately called 911.

“The set is going to be rather conceptual,” said Playhouse Director Lance Matzke. “I’m grateful we’re dealing with such an experienced, close-knit cast because it’s really going to allow them to shine, and our performance is going to rely on their strengths as actors and musicians. While the fire has certainly presented a challenge to us, our goal is to get up and running as quickly as possible and continue the momentum we’ve been building this season. After all, the show must go on!”

According to Fire Marshal Jimmy Teem, the cause of the fire was spontaneous combustion of bales of straw that were in the storage building adjacent to the Playhouse.

Teem said the bales of straw which were being used as backdrop props on the stage for Oklahoma! inside the Playhouse and extra bales being stored in the building had been treated for bugs with a borax and water solution, which in itself is OK. 

“They sprayed the bales to get rid of the insects and that’s fine, but then they put them back in the storage building while they were still wet. This caused them to build heat – just like if wet or green hay is put in a barn. They would have had to let them dry out completely before storing them.” 

Teem said the bales put back on the stage didn’t ignite because the building is air-conditioned so it was a different environment.

However, he issued a fire-code violation because bales of straw can easily ignite with a spark from an outlet or any number of things, he said.

“That building isn’t sprinkled and its very old. All that’s needed is a good spark to start a fire, so bales of straw aren’t allowed in there,” he said. 

Even if the building was “sprinkled” he said bales of hay would have had to be treated with some kind of flame retardant prior to being used.

He ordered the power turned off in the building Sunday which shut down Sunday’s matinee production as well as the movie set for later that afternoon and evening. He allowed the power to be turned back on around 2:30 p.m. Monday after all the bales were removed and a punch list left by Teem was completed.

No one was in the building at the time of the fire and there were no injuries.

The out-building to the rear of the campus is used to store set equipment and wardrobe and after inspection appears to be structurally sound.

“There’s some smoke and heat damage, but the structure was mostly metal so there’s not much damage there,” said Highlands Fire & Rescue Chief Gearhart. “It was mostly content damage.”

HFR Firefighter and Town Commissioner Eric Pierson was the first on the scene and said the source was easy to locate upon entering the building.

“Right when I walked in, the fire source was easy to spot in a back corner,” said Pierson. “But moving through the dark there was zero visibility and we had to go through all the clutter to get to the flames, then we just put it out with a hose.”

Playhouse staff walked through the theater portion of the Playhouse to check on the stacks of straw bales that were on stage. Besides a slight odor of smoke, the stage appeared unscathed.

Lance said the metal out-building will probably not be used again. If anything, it’ll be completely stripped to just a shell,” said Matzke.

Cashiers-Glenville Volunteer Fire Department was also on scene providing support as policy with structure fires.

Oklahoma! continues through Saturday, July 27. 

Oklahoma! continues through Saturday, July 27. 

Article and Photos by Brian O’Shea
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