Wasatch Community Gardens trying to rebuild after fire destroyed ‘guts’ of its operation just before annual plant sale

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kelly Rhees working at Wasatch Community Gardens' downtown Salt Lake City location on Tuesday April 2, 2019.

Where there once were two shipping containers filled with seeds, tools, employee lockers, a coffee bar and other gardening supplies, there is now ash, melted plastic and two charred and warped metal husks.

A fire somehow started in one of the containers March 24, and then the pressure caused both of them to explode, sending the innards flying and setting back Wasatch Community Gardens’ Green Team Farm during the peak spring season, just before its annual plant sale fundraiser.

“Fortunately," garden manager James Loomis said, “we have the greenhouse. No plants or people were hurt. That was nice.”

Loomis estimates the fire caused about $40,000 in damage, from the shipping containers themselves — which he and his crew spent the last two years upgrading and furnishing with salvaged materials to serve as his employees’ locker room and kitchen — and the valuables stored inside them, like Loomis’s tools and workers’ belongings.

The containers were the “guts” of the Green Team Farm, where the nonprofit Wasatch Community Gardens hosts its job training program for women experiencing homelessness and single mothers living in poverty. Loomis said as devastating as the fire was, he hopes the women in the program use the experience to learn to move on from tragedy.

“I’m trying to leverage this as an example of how to process that grief. Don’t bury it. Let’s process it," he said. “But at the same time, let’s be resilient. Let’s bounce back.”

That’s just what the women are doing, said Debi Earhart, a 63-year-old who started working at the garden in February.

Earhart has watched the space transform in her few months there, from a snow-covered patch of land to a fully functional garden. She said she and the other women started by unburying the place. They moved supplies around for the growing season, laid wood chips on the ground and pulled weeds. She’s watched seeds grow from tiny sprigs to plantlets.

The work, she said, “feels good from the toes to the top.”

And all that was almost lost.

Heat from the fire came within 10 feet of the greenhouse, where the crew is nursing more than 20,000 plant starts for the May 11 sale, the nonprofit’s biggest fundraiser. The heat shrunk the plastic siding and disfigured the the plastic plant containers on the other side. The explosion jettisoned a shelf, bolted to the wall of one of the shipping containers, several yards into the greenhouse, ripping a hole in the siding.

Yet inside the greenhouse, the plants were OK.

Loomis held up some seedlings that had faced the worst of the explosion. The green sprigs stood like a cowlick with a few unruly stragglers inside their misshapen thin, black plastic planter.

“Look how life wants to go on, you know what I mean?” he said, smiling. “A few of those got toasted, but the rest are great.”

Like those plants, Earhart said the women are trying to move past the fire.

The first day the women saw the damage, “We stopped in awe,” Earhart said, “and went, ‘we got to get to work.’ The good Lord kept us working on growing food. Whatever this is supposed to teach us, there it is.”

She said they’ve been working so hard, sometimes it feels like the fire didn’t happen — except for the evidence that it obviously did.

The burned remains are still on site and surrounded by red caution tape. Because fire investigators are still trying to determine what caused the blaze, Loomis and his team haven’t been able to start cleaning up. They are also working with the gardens’ insurance company, and don’t want to do anything to jeopardize their claim.

Salt Lake City Fire Division Chief Ryan Mellor said investigators still don’t know whether to suspect foul play, but Loomis said he doesn’t think the fire was started intentionally.

Loomis said it’s possible the electrical plug to a mini-fridge inside one of the containers short-circuited, sparking the fire.

My Mini Casa, a company in Bluffdale, donated two new shipping containers to the garden, but Loomis said it will take a lot of work to clean up the old ones and repurpose the new ones. Wasatch Community Gardens also has set up a fund for the rebuilding effort. To donate, go to bit.ly/WCGfund.

“It’s a giant inconvenience,” Loomis said, "but at at the same time, too, it’s like it’s just stuff, and ultimately coming back to that lesson of what do we need.”

For Green Team Farm, that’s the right supplies, the right people, hard work and a little time.