Mat-Su officials seek cause of fire

Posted: Friday, June 08, 2007

ANCHORAGE - It could take weeks to determine the cause of a fire that destroyed a school outside Talkeetna, Matanuska-Susitna Borough officials said.

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The fire Tuesday night at Susitna Valley Junior and Senior High School erupted in the school's center.

More than 70 state and municipal firefighters responded and found flames shooting from the school roof. Strong winds fanned flames. and the fire burned too hot to save the east and west classroom wings of the 34-year-old school.

The borough estimates the value of the school at more than $13 million.

The fire was fueled in part by plywood and other material assembled for a $5.5 million renovation and roof reconstruction project, which began in March.

"Everything piled down upon it so it's just like a campfire that will sit there and burn for days unless you pour water on it and stir it, pour water on it and stir it, that sort of thing," said Dennis Brodigan, borough emergency services director.

The fire was among the largest structure fires ever in the borough, said spokeswoman Patty Sullivan.

Scott Schwald, district operations director for maintenance and transportation, said officials are interviewing contractors involved with the renovation project. They also will speak to the contractor who installed the sprinkler system and the custodial contractor, Schwald said.

The sprinkler system is tested weekly and Guardian Security was notified about the fire, so the fire alarm appeared to be working, school officials said.

Chris Hamre, owner of Denali General Contractors Inc., the general contractor on the renovation job, said his crews Tuesday had not disabled the sprinkler system.

Construction crews sometimes disable sprinkler systems to avoid accidental discharges, said Dominic Lee, president and CEO of the company that installed the sprinklers.

Crews were working in the building's center core area, which includes the gym, multipurpose room and student center. Work crews were installing plywood to prepare for a rubber membrane to be installed next week, Hamre said.

"There was no open flame, the things we always watch closely, no torches," he said. "Everybody was on the roof trying to get plywood down."

About 15 of his workers lost their tools in the fire, Hamre said.

Acting Central Mat-Su Fire Chief Michael Keenan said fighting the fire was a challenge.

As the center of the structure burned, crews cut a trench in the roof where they hoped to stop the fire from spreading to the wings.

The building had a roof underneath a roof, Keenan said. Outside crews could cut through one roof but not the other. Inside crews could not cut through a hard, wooden roof, he said.

Inside were acetylene tanks for welding classes, piles of wood in the woodshop and the plywood for the renovation project, Brodigan said.

"I guess looking at the bright side is that we had enough manpower and equipment with the Division of Forestry there that it didn't spread into the surrounding woodlands," he said.

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