Firefighters extinguish blaze at vacant Dart Bowl; authorities investigating its cause

Austin Fire Department visits Mac in ongoing investigation

Firefighters+gather+in+the+Dart+Bowl+parking+lot+on+Wednesday+afternoon.+After+extinguishing+the+fire+inside%2C+they+ventilated+the+building+so+the+smoke+could+dissipate.+An+investigation+to+determine+the+parties+responsible+for+the+fire+is+underway+and+brought+firefighters+to+McCallum+on+Thursday.

Morgan Eye

Firefighters gather in the Dart Bowl parking lot on Wednesday afternoon. After extinguishing the fire inside, they ventilated the building so the smoke could dissipate. An investigation to determine the parties responsible for the fire is underway and brought firefighters to McCallum on Thursday.

By Morgan Eye, McCallum High School

The Austin Fire Department responded to a call reporting a trash fire at 5700 Grover Ave., the vacant Dart Bowl Bowling Alley, at 4:41 p.m. on Wednesday. According to AISD police officers, the fire started around 1 p.m. in a trashcan in the center of the building. 

Nobody was hurt in the incident, said Christie Macias, an Austin EMS paramedic.

We just want to keep our kids out of buildings like this, and we want to spread the word that stuff like this is dangerous. ”

— assistant principal Larry Featherstone

Eight fire engines, three small battalion trucks, two EMS and Austin ISD police arrived on scene. The fire was under control by 5:34 p.m., the AFD said via Tweet. Smoke continued to billow out of the building as firefighters opened doors in order to ventilate the building and let the smoke dissipate.

“When I was walking down between the freshman field and the tennis courts I saw the smoke coming out of the air conditioner [on the roof] and I thought, ‘That’s not normal,’” sophomore Micah Brinton said. “I thought it might have been dust blowing out of the air conditioner or something at first, but then I realized it was definitely smoke.”

The cause of the fire is still under investigation by AFD arson investigators. According to Battalion Chief Thayer Smith, the building had been broken into just hours after welders had come to reseal the building’s doors. 

“The welders were here working on welding the doors shut to secure the building, but somewhere they left a door open apparently because [someone] still managed to get in and leave a door open behind them,” Smith said.

According to assistant principal Larry Featherstone, students have been known to enter the vacant building in the past.

“This is obviously an abandoned building,” Smith said. “There shouldn’t be a fire inside, but we had a trash fire inside the building so that leads us to believe that someone intentionally set a fire.” 

It’s probably going to be something involving the kids that [may have] set a fire. We aren’t 100% sure yet, but we are leaning in that direction.”

— AFD Battalion Chief Thayer Smith

While the fire department suspects foul play, Smith also said that the fire may have been accidental. 

“We have some pretty good witness statements from people that saw kids running from the building just prior to the onset of the fire,” Smith said. “The investigators will look into that and see if we can find them and identify those kids and see what they were doing in an abandoned building. Once we get in there we can make sure if it was something accidental or if it was something that was intentionally set [on fire].”

On Wednesday, Smith said it was still “too early” to say that a minor or minors were responsible for causing the fire. 

“A fire in an abandoned building, witnesses seeing kids running from an abandoned building and an open door; it’s probably going to be something involving the kids that [may have] set a fire. We aren’t 100% sure yet, but we are leaning in that direction.” 

Witnesses to the fire department’s response included neighbors, students and parents. Freshman Wyatt Philpott was one of many students who stopped to watch the blaze. 

“I live right down the street from here, and every day I walk home with my friend Kingsley. And we were walking by here and I see smoke coming out of the top of the Dart Bowl, and we thought it may have just been the cold or something. But once we got halfway past the Dart Bowl, firefighters started barreling into the parking lot. Then six more fire trucks came, and we saw the smoke just rolling out of the side of the building.  ” 

Responders asked that bystanders back away from the scene as they opened a side door to the building to create backdraft.

Arson investigators visited McCallum both this morning and afternoon to conduct further investigation. Lt. Kelly Gall said the purpose of their visit was to review security footage and interview potential witnesses or informants. 

Featherstone was on the scene alongside AISD Officer Riley. 

“The firefighters have told us to continue to encourage our students to stay away from this building,” Featherstone said. “We just want to keep our kids out of buildings like this, and we want to spread the word that stuff like this is dangerous, not only for the kids but for the firefighters involved. We want to avoid this type of thing in the future.” 

AFD Safety Chief Justin Talentino also encouraged students to stay away from the Dart Bowl site in the future. 

The investigation is still ongoing. 

This story was originally published on The Shield Online on November 17, 2022.