UPDATE, 5pm — An errant torch flame was the likely cause of the fire that burned approximately 15 percent of an under-construction UVA football practice facility roof, according to Charlottesville Fire Chief Charles Werner.
Werner said the fire is still under investigation, but preliminary reports indicate a construction worker’s torch probably ignited the rubber membrane covering the roof’s layers of insulation, and the fire quickly spread in a stiff breeze, sending up clouds of thick black smoke visible for miles.
“It was fortunate we had the wind coming from the direction it was,” Werner said. Had it been blowing in from the south, he said, much more of the roof would likely have gone up in flames. As it was, the fire was tricky to put out for several reasons. Firefighters had trouble getting water to penetrate into the layers of insulation, and the fire reignited several times. Liquified rubber was running off the roof as people worked on ladders to gain access to the blaze, and the soft, uneven ground of the construction site meant trucks had to be jacked up for stability.
It took about an hour and a half to get the fire contained, Werner said, though as of late afternoon, crews remained onsite doing a thorough check of the roof. He said it’s not clear yet how much of the roof can be salvaged.
At approximately 12:36pm today, all Charlottesville city fire units were dispatched to a reported fire on the roof of an Emmet Street indoor practice facility under construction next to University Hall on the UVA Grounds. According to Battalion Chief Richard Jones, all city fire units are currently on the scene.
“We do not have a cause at this time,” Jones said. “We’ll be working with the University of Virginia officials and the Environmental Health and Safety along with the City Fire Marshall’s office to find out what kind of cause we have.”
Smoke billowed from the roof of the building as flames shot up and were knocked down several times over the course of half an hour. Large patches of the insulation covering the roof were charred and shedding debris at firefighters worked on the blaze from several angles.
Interim UVA spokesperson McGregor McCance said the fire was under control by about 2pm. Firefighters were battling the flames with ladder trucks, and McCance said some are spraying down the adjacent field in case burning debris falls on the turf.
Dan Lawson, a Charlottesville resident who works construction, spotted the flames and drove up to watch firefighters try to put them out. “I was probably a mile away when I saw smoke,” he said. “I’ve been watching the building go up every day. This is just crazy.”
Lawson said people working on the building told him welders had been on the roof this morning, and that sparks may have caught the insulation seen burning. Fire officials could not confirm there had been welding going on prior to the fire.
The $13 million practice facility will house a full-size 100-yard artificial turf football field. Construction began in June of this year, and officials have net yet determined what impact today’s fire will have on completion of the project.