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Fire consumes historic Arkansas hospital complex

By Suzi Parker

LITTLE ROCK, Ark (Reuters) - A massive fire claimed a historic World War Two-era hospital in Arkansas and more than 100 other buildings near Fort Smith, and was still burning on Thursday night.

The Fort Chaffee fire broke out on a 90-acre former medical complex late on Wednesday, the hottest day recorded in Fort Smith history, according to the National Weather Service. Fire officials said the fire's cause was under investigation.

A rash of fires has plagued Arkansas as drought and heat worsened, and heat hit 115 degrees in Fort Smith on Wednesday.

Ray Gosack, Fort Smith's city administrator, said firefighters suffered dire conditions controlling the Chaffee blaze because of the heat and dangerous lead and asbestos in the wooden, dilapidated structures at Fort Chaffee, which served as an Army training center in World War Two.

"With the recent weather conditions of heat, wind and no rain, it was the perfect storm for something like this," he said.

Fort Chaffee possesses a rich history with many movies, including "Biloxi Blues," filmed on the property. It is best known in popular culture as the site where Elvis Presley entered the Army in 1958 and had his hair shorn in a crew cut.

The fire was about a mile away from the historic district that includes the barber shop, Gosack said.

The government began Camp Chaffee in 1941, paying $1.35 million to acquire the land. The first soldiers arrived on December 7, 1941 - Pearl Harbor Day. It served as a training camp as well as a German prisoner-of-war camp.

Fort Chaffee was a processing center for refugees from the Vietnam War in the mid-1970s. It has also housed Cuban refugees and Hurricane Katrina evacuees, but many of the buildings that housed them burned in 2008.

"The hospital ... was a structural record of what military medical care here used to be like," Fort Smith Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Claude Legris told Reuters.

"Although that part of the complex had not been renovated, it's difficult when a natural disaster such as this one eliminates future restoration as an option."

The medical complex had also become a popular spot with paranormal enthusiasts in recent years, with some ghost hunters visiting the hospital every weekend.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston)