Fire destroys Mat-Su school

Cause of blaze not known, officials say

Posted: Thursday, June 07, 2007

ANCHORAGE - Seventy firefighters and emergency responders tried in vain to save Susitna Valley Junior and Senior High School from flames that destroyed the $13 million building.

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The fire at the school outside Talkeetna broke out sometime between 6:30 and 7 p.m. Tuesday, officials in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough said.

Firefighters arriving shortly after 7 p.m. found flames shooting out the roof. By 10:15 p.m., the roof was nearly consumed and walls were on fire.

Dennis Brodigan, borough emergency services director, said firefighters tried to save the school's west wing because important records were stored inside. The intensity of the fire forced firefighters out.

"We had to back our people out," he said. "It wasn't worth risking someone's life."

Firefighters remained on the scene Wednesday morning, said borough spokeswoman Patty Sullivan. The building had collapsed on itself but parts were still burning. Front-end loaders were getting ready to lift debris onto the parking lot were it could be hosed, she said.

The school, which served about 200 students in grades seven through 12, is 58 miles north of Wasilla and 14 miles south of Talkeetna near the community of Sunshine.

The cause of the fire is not known. It apparently started in the center of the school, Brodigan said.

The school was undergoing a structural upgrade and roof reconstruction.

In 2005, an architectural and engineering report declared the roof deficient to support snow loads and average seismic activity. The report led the district's insurance broker, Marsh USA Inc., to declare the school uninsurable.

Mat-Su officials announced a plan to close the school and bus students to Trapper Creek but instead settled on a plan to close the school and shovel the roof if the snow level on the roof reached 18 inches.

The school in two years did not have to close because of snow load, said Mat-Su School District Superintendent Bob Doyle, who is retiring, on Wednesday. The roof was shoveled whenever 12 inches accumulated on the roof, said borough spokeswoman Patty Sullivan.

The reconstruction project began in March during spring break. Eight portable classrooms allowed work to continue. The reconstruction and structural upgrades were slated to cost $5.5 million.

School has been out for summer break for about two weeks.

Doyle said the school had a central core containing a library, gymnasium, office and multipurpose building plus east and west wings containing classrooms.

The building is fully insured, Doyle said. However, parents and students wanted to know "yesterday" where school will open in the fall, he said. That decision, Doyle said, probably will be made after meetings with the public overseen by Doyle's replacement, George Troxel.

The school was valued at $13.23 million and its contents, $691,000, according to Tammy Clayton, finance director.

Fifty firefighters and 10 other support personnel from throughout the borough responded, including crews based in Talkeetna, Meadow Lakes, Houston, Big Lake, Central, Butte and Palmer, plus Chugiak in north Anchorage. Ten people from the state Division of Forestry also responded.

Brodigan said embers from the school fire set off small spot fires in nearby forest and the Forestry Division extinguished them by water dumps from a helicopter.

The helicopter also dumped more than 40 water loads on the school.

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