No injuries or major damage from blaze originating in school's ventilation system

Fire forces evacuation at Skyview

Posted: Wednesday, December 19, 2001

Fire and ice don't mix. Skyview High School students and staff learned this lesson the hard way late Tuesday morning as a fire from the wood shop vent system forced a mass exodus of the building into minus 12-degree weather.

Central Emergency Services Capt. Randy Willis said dispatch received the call for the fire at around 11:45 a.m. Response units were called from Soldotna, Sterling and Kalifornsky Beach Road stations with a reserve water tank requested from the Kenai Fire Department. He said the first response units were on the scene within seven minutes of the call.

"We put the fire out in relatively short order," Willis said. "We had it under control in about 15 minutes, and I declared it completely and totally out after about an hour."

were no injuries reported and no structural damage to the building. The cost of damage to the vent system is unknown.


Firefighters inspect damage to the back of Skyview High School following Tuesday's fire.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Assistant Superintendent Todd Syverson was present at Soldotna High School, where the Skyview staff and many students without cars were relocated. He praised the staff's efficient response to the emergency.

"The school did an excellent job evacuating the students, contacting local authorities and assessing damages," Syverson said.

Central Emergency Services Fire Marshal Gary Hale said the fire originated in the dust collector of the school's wood shop. The metal ventilation system, located at the east end of the building, collects wood chips and debris from the woodworking tools in the shop.

Electric fans in the machine blow the wooden material through a set of shafts from separate stations in the shop to a waste receptacle outside the building, where it is emptied periodically. Hale said the receptacle was where the blaze started and identified only two possible means of combustion.


Parents sign for their students before taking them from Soldotna High School.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

"The only sources of ignition were electrical or intentional," he said. "It is still under investigation."

Skyview principal John Pothast said his school was in its lunch period when the fire was reported.

"A student came to me and told me about smoke coming from near the wood shop," Pothast said. "When I saw it, I pulled the fire alarm, and I evacuated the school immediately."

Syverson said there is a critical incident plan to send students to either the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities office at Mile 96 of the Sterling Highway or to Soldotna High.

"We sent them to Soldotna because the auditorium would be more comfortable for the students," Syverson said.

Pothast said the critical incident plan also had provisions for emergency circumstances in extreme weather.

"The biggest thing we did was we kept the kids safe," he said. "Our plan calls for bringing buses and vans around. Within a few minutes of evacuating the building, we had kids in vehicles and warm."

Pothast said he was pleased with his staff's response to the situation and attributed the quick acting to preparedness.

"We're well practiced as far as an evacuation," he said.

He said schools are required to have a monthly fire drill, and that three or four times a year his building goes beyond the critical incident plan with drilling. He did, however, point out a minor area the school could improve on in the future.

"There was some kind of disjointedness because the alarm went off during lunch," he said. "There is a difference in kids being in class with their teachers and kids being on their own without direct supervision."

After about 30 minutes, students were allowed to return to the building long enough to gather their belongings. Then, those who had vehicles were signed out to go home. Buses were called from Laidlaw Transit to transport remaining students to Soldotna High, where they were either picked up by parents or designated rides or waited for their regular buses, which picked them up at 1:45 p.m., 40 minutes earlier than the normal 2:25 p.m. last bell.

Head Soldotna High School secretary Beth Martin said she received calls from parents before she even knew students were coming, and her school made plans to accommodate the additional students in her building.

"We made arrangements for them to enter through the auditorium," she said. "And we were prepared to serve them lunch if they needed it."

Diane Norman, of Kasilof, arrived to pick up her daughter, sophomore Cris Russell, and two students, Cody Riley and Dylan Mabe, who live near her. She said her daughter's call struck a sense of urgency.

"She called me and said, 'this is not a prank call. The school is on fire,''' Norman said.

Norman was among the many parents who went to Soldotna's lobby to sign out their student and, in some cases, other children, according to a school-established emergency plan.

"I was on the emergency list," she said.

Hale said the fire was prevented from spreading to the building, in part, because it was outside of the main structure of the building. Willis said the sprinkler system helped contain the blaze.

Pothast said the maintenance staff planned to work through the night Tuesday to clear any lingering smoke from the building.

The school will reopen at its normal time today.

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