The Bryce Canyon Lodge is one of the classic park hotels that date back to the early days of the National Park System. Constructed in multiple phases throughout the 1920s, it's a National Landmark on the National Register of Historic Places, and one of the hostelry icons featured in the PBS series, Great National Park Lodges.
Future visitors to Bryce Canyon National Park who look forward to a chance to enjoy the ambiance of the old lodge can be thankful that modern improvements include a sprinkler system—and a well-trained local fire brigade. According to a park report,
Rangers received a report of smoke and flames issuing from Bryce Canyon Lodge …just after 5 p.m. on the afternoon of Wednesday, October 28th. The park’s fire company and Tropic Volunteer Fire Department responded.
The sprinkler system in the affected area was engaged, with one sprinkler head spraying water on the fire. Vertical ventilation was conducted and the fire was extinguished. The fire was limited to the attic above the boiler room that provides heat to half the lodge.
Although it had recently been inspected and cleared as safe to operate, investigation revealed that a short section of the chimney in the attic was of single wall construction, that it was surrounded by insulation, and that it was within two inches of the wood construction.
Due to recent low temperatures, the boiler had been in continuous operation. The investigation revealed that flame did not contact the roof, but that the fire was started by heat radiation.
The sprinkler system is inspected biannually. The system managed to contain the fire to the area of origin, preventing extension into the rest of the historic structure. After the fire was suppressed, the sprinklers were taken off line. The lodge was put on a 24-hour fire watch, and the alarm system was restored for advanced notification. The protection systems were restored on the following day with a service call from fire protection specialists.
The investigation was completed by a trained fire investigator. Inspection of the area showed no flame impingement outside the chimney, and the resulting report confirmed it was a radiant heat start. Single wall chimney construction is not adequate for such a unit and will be replaced with triple wall chimney. The fuel oil fired boiler was scheduled to be replaced (pre-fire) on November 3rd with a propane fired boiler. No changes have been made to those plans.
If there's any good news from this incident, it may be that the fire occurred very close to the end of the season, so a relatively small number of visitors were inconvenienced. The flip side of the timing: the fire occurred after cold weather had arrived for the fall, and the low temperatures created another set of problems.
The lodge was scheduled to close for the season after breakfast on November 1st. The lodge closed early and reservations were transferred to local hotels. As of October 30th, no food service or sleeping accommodations are being considered. Additional damage has been sustained to the structure due to frozen water pipes as a result of taking the boiler off line and not being able to drain the system properly.
In another bit of ironic timing, the park had recently completed negotiations for a contract with a new concessioner for operation of the Lodge, which the change taking effect in less than two months. On July 22, the NPS announced that Forever Resorts will begin a 10-year contract on January 1, 2010, for "operation of lodging, food and beverage, retail, shower, laundry, and other services" within the park.
According to a park publication, the Bryce Canyon Lodge
it is the last of the original lodges, designed by Gilbert Stanley Underwood and built by the Utah Parks Company, to survive within the Grand Circle.
The "Grand Circle" is a term sometimes applied to a group of parks including Bryce Canyon, Zion and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, sites which were commonly visited on a "circle tour" in the 1920s and 1930s. Fire has been a common enemy of early lodges in those parks: Underwood's original lodge at the North Rim burned in 1932, only four years after it was completed. It was rebuilt and reopened in 1937.
According to Xanterra, the current concessioner at Zion National Park, the lodge designed at Underwood in that park was destroyed by fire in 1966.
That same year, the lodge was rebuilt in 100 days, quickly restoring the influx of visitors to Zion, but sacrificing the hotel's rustic design. In 1990, the exterior was restored to its original classic appearance.
Thanks to that sprinkler system and prompt work by firefighters, this last surviving original example of an era in park architecture escaped a similar fate at Bryce Canyon last week. A spokesperson for Forever Resorts, which will take over operation of the Bryce Canyon Lodge next year, says they don't anticipate any problems opening the facility on schedule next April.