Work continues on Joseph's new gym, which should be ready for use by mid-October. (Photo courtesy Joseph Charter School)
Work continues on Joseph's new gym, which should be ready for use by mid-October. (Photo courtesy Joseph Charter School)

Even before the arrival of COVID-19 turned everything upside down in Oregon, Joseph Charter School got a jump-start on dealing with adversity in 2020.

During a lunch period on Jan. 16, a fire broke out in the loft of the school's gym. The blaze, believed to have been caused by an electrical issue, charred part of the gym and caused more than $2.5 million in smoke and water damage throughout the school building.

It forced the K-12 school to move its classes and displaced its sports teams.

“It's been a year of transitions at Joseph this year,” athletic director Jason Crenshaw said. “Flexibility is kind of key here.”

But Joseph is slowly turning the corner. This week, workers are installing a new floor in the rebuilt gym. Once the gym is painted and bleachers are installed, the repair will be complete.

“I'm expecting that by this time in October, it'll be a usable space,” Crenshaw said.

The fire flashed over the top of the gym's ceiling and burned one side of the building. Water from the fire hoses destroyed the gym floor and damaged the tile in the locker rooms. A fine soot penetrated everything.

“It's shocking how much smoke damage we had,” Crenshaw said. “They basically had to gut the whole gym. We were fortunate that there wasn't any real structural damage, but there was a lot of smoke damage to our equipment. All the little things that go with a gym, we had to replace.”

The scoreboard melted. Banners and state championship brackets were lost. Wrestling mats burned, as did a flag that dropped down from the ceiling. Bleachers were charred.

Insurance paid for most of the repairs, but the district also received many unexpected donations.

“There was a real outpouring of support from across the state, different school districts, and just donors and people that wanted to help out,” Crenshaw said. “All of our league schools were very generous and helped us out, and other schools in the northeast Oregon community outside of our league, too.”

The new gym will have smaller bleachers than the old gym, which had a capacity of about 800. The loft area will continue to house the wrestling area and weight room, which will have all new equipment.

The gym has a new roof and ventilation system, replacing an antiquated system that sometimes shot lint onto the floor. The gym also has new scoreboards and added shot clocks. The floor will have a new touch: graphics of the Wallowa Mountains on the sideline near the scorers table.

Team uniforms couldn't be salvaged due to smoke damage, but the school got a bonus when Nike donated new ones.

The fire was a major disruption for Joseph athletes and coaches last winter, but they were able to make the necessary adjustments to finish out the season.

The wrestling team rented the civic center for practices and the girls and boys basketball teams played the rest of their home games at Enterprise High School, seven miles away. The girls practiced at Joseph's auxiliary gym and the boys practiced at Enterprise.

“Enterprise was really, really generous to let us use their facilities,” Crenshaw said. “They made room for us. They showed a lot of flexibility within their own programs to help us out. That was pretty huge for us.”

Both Joseph basketball teams won home playoff games at Enterprise to reach the 1A tournament. Enterprise, a 2A school, has been a natural rival to Joseph over the years, but rallied around the Eagles for the playoff games.

“They were very supportive of our kids,” Crenshaw said. “Our attendance at those games was pretty high because a lot of the community of Enterprise came to support. It had a home feel to it.”

Despite the disruption to their seasons, Joseph's girls made the semifinals and the boys lost in the quarterfinals.

“I thought it would affect their performance, but it actually kind of brought our kids together,” Crenshaw said. “There was a lot of adjusting and team-building stuff that happened as a result of it. I think it really actually enhanced some of it. It was definitely a pain, but it wasn't necessarily a bad thing as far as their ability to perform.”