Leader Blues

Saturday, September 02, 2006

TOP STORY>>Probe looks into lessons of blaze at junior high

Leader staff writer

As district officials prepare to get 800 seventh- and eighth-graders into portable buildings on Tuesday, investigators are still on the scene at Cabot Junior High North trying to determine the exact cause of the Aug. 8 fire that destroyed the eight-year-old building.

Mark Smart, assistant fire chief at Cabot Fire Department, said so far the fire department’s ruling of a faulty ballast in a fluorescent light inside a closet still stands.

Smart said the insurance company has completed its preliminary investigation. Now, investigators with the various equipment manufacturers are at the burned-out school.

“They were there three days last week and three days this week,” he said. “They’re sifting through things piece by piece. They have found different things, like melted components, that all point back to the light.”

The loss of the building alone has been estimated at $9 million. The value of the lost contents has not yet been estimated. The school was built to state code in 1998 and the sprinklers and fire walls extending through the roof that might have helped save it were not part of the design.

Fire Chief Phil Robinson said soon after the fire that since the blaze started in the attic, sprinklers in the ceiling would have been little help in slowing the progress of the fire. The building did have cinderblock fire barriers, Smart said.

But the barriers weren’t solid. They had openings for people to pass through and for electrical lines and plumbing. And resting on top of the barriers were the highly combustible plywood roof decking and asphalt shingles. So the fire that started in the attic could draw through the attic from one section of the school to the next and burn through the roof.

“By (the new) code, firewalls still do not have to penetrate the roof if it is built with a non-combustible roofing material and that’s metal,” Smart explained. “Metal will melt but it is almost impossible for metal to combust under a normal building fire.”

If the school, with its wooden trusses and asphalt shingle roof, had been built after 2002 when the building code was updated, it would have been equipped with sprinklers in the ceiling and in the attic. “It would have greatly hindered the spread of fire,” Smart said. “We love sprinkler systems.”

According to Smart, the use of metal-truss roofing construction is on the upswing. This type of construction is usually not required to have a sprinkler system in the attic.

There is a formula used to determine if a second sprinkler system is necessary. Smart also added that he is thankful no one was killed or injured in the fire.

He credits the school administration for this positive outcome.