Fire burns People’s Center, suspect found deceased inside
PABLO – Flames engulfed the People’s Center on Sunday night where the rich cultural artifacts of the Salish, Pend d’Oreille and Kootenai people were housed.
“We lost a room full of the stories and belongings of our ancestors, but they are still in our hearts, and we will pick up the pieces and move forward,” said People’s Center Director Marie Torosian.
After hearing about the fire, Torosian was in disbelief. She drove to the People’s Center and saw smoke billowing from the building The fire was reported at 8 p.m. on Sunday and continued into the morning hours the next day. Firefighters tried to gain access to the concrete building on Sunday night.
“The heat was too much and the firefighters couldn’t get in through the doors, so they pounded a hole in the back to gain access,” Torosian said. “The building is made of concrete and rock. It was designed to represent all three tribes. The outside is very strong, but the inside burned.”
Lake County Sheriff Don Bell reported that the body of Julian Michael Draper, 33, of Pablo, was recovered from the scene. Draper is suspected as the individual who started the fire. His body was sent to the Montana Crime Lab.
“Local fire crews were battling this fire and discovered the male deceased on the floor in a back office,” Bell said. “Draper had barricaded the doors, which made fighting the fire challenging.”
On Monday, Aug. 24, Draper was arrested and later released on arson charges. The incident began at 5 p.m. when a citizen called to report a fire in the trees, located north of the old Plum Creek Mill off of Light Road in Pablo, according to Bell.
The citizen reported observing a suspicious person in the area and called the 911 emergency dispatch center. Before the fire department arrived, a Lake County Sheriff’s Office deputy assessed the fire and found it to be suspicious and searched the area for a suspect. The deputy arrested Draper on suspicion of arson.
At the People’s Center, smoke billowed through the broken glass as the fire started to spread. The lights from emergency response vehicles flashed from the dark parking lot as crews from several emergency response departments on the Flathead Reservation sprayed water into the structure.
After midnight, flames started reaching out from the central dome of the building. Firefighters continued to douse the structure with water.
Steve Lozar, former Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal council member, drove to the site and watched flames.
“This place housed the spirit of our families and individuals, and to see it burning was unthinkable,” he said. “The flames went up really high in the center and the heat was so intense.”
People’s Center officials posted on their Facebook page saying that the place where people gathered to experience rich cultural heritage was damaged by fire: “We are devastated at the destruction of arson on our beautiful museum, gift shop and cultural center.”
The center is a 1,200-square-foot structure containing exhibits for visitors to gain insight into the culture of the Salish, Pend d’Oreille and Kootenai people. Guided tours helped visitors learn about history and culture. The People’s Center has artifacts that include Chief Charlo’s beaded vest.
Torosian has been part of the People’s Center project since it opened in 1995. She was on the original board in 1993 when the project was being developed. She said the building became the home for many artifacts. “The repository was a total loss,” she said. She explained that beaded bags from tribal members who are no longer living were stored in the repository, along with buckskin vests, moccasins, leggings, cloth dresses, stone tools and headdresses.
Several other items were also displayed in the center. Torosian was waiting for fire investigators to give her the “all clear” so that she could go in and look at the rest of the damage. “There is a lot of smoke and water damage to the artifacts but some might be restored,” she said.
On Monday morning, smoke was still billowing from the top of the center. A few CSKT leaders gathered in front of the center for a small ceremony to say prayers. “We prayed for the individual who was involved with the fire,” Torosian said. “We prayed for his family. We also prayed for our loss and for our future.”
As for the future, plans are being discussed about moving forward and rebuilding. “We plan to pick up our history and move forward. That is what we have always done.”