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Sprinklers extinguish fire at middle school

A three-alarm fire broke out at Oak Harbor Middle School Wednesday morning, causing about $10,000 worth of damage and clean-up costs to the school’s band room.

Staff and students were evacuated from the building when an automatic alarm sounded. There were no injuries. The room was unoccupied at the time.

All students were quickly accounted for, said Principal Sue Haworth.

The cause of the fire, which erupted shortly before 11:25 a.m. above the ceiling of the school’s band room, is under investigation, said Oak Harbor Fire Department Battalion Chief Ray Merrill. However, Merrill said that he suspects the cause to be excess heat generated by a crew working outside and near the building, with the heat igniting materials in the attic space.

Bruce Worley, director of operations for Oak Harbor School District, confirmed that a grounds and maintenance crew was working right along the back of the building, using a torch to kill weeds as part of the district’s integrated pest management program.

“It is suspected that when they came by...with the heat source,” a piece of burning lawn waste debris was sucked up a ventilation duct that leads to the overhead area of the room, Worley explained. He did, however, say that the cause is still under investigation.

Band teacher Larry Wilhelm first became aware that the fire was in his classroom after smoke detectors triggered the automatic fire alarm and sprinkler system. Following procedure, Wilhelm said he entered his classroom to retrieve the day’s attendance records so he could account for his first-period students.

“When I walked in I realized it when I saw all the water coming down,” Wilhelm said as he, with the help of a few fellow teachers, cleared band instruments from within the wet room.

Remarkably, Wilhelm said, there appeared to be a minimal amount of damage to the school building and to personal musical instruments.

Most of the estimated damage was caused by the water from the sprinklers, Merrill said.

However, the sprinklers most likely saved the building. The water from the sprinklers kept the fire at bay while it burned for about 10 or 15 minutes, Merrill said, and then extinguished the flames.

“If there wasn’t a sprinkler system, they’d be buying a new building,” Merrill said.

You can reach News-Times reporter Christine Smith at csmith@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611

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