Old Battle Ground school gives its last lesson

Central School destroyed in training exercise for firefighters

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter



Central School's last lesson

Firefighters used the former Central School in Battle Ground for a series of training sessions Saturday. The exercise culminated with the destruction of the building.

Firefighters used the former Central School in Battle Ground for a series of training sessions Saturday. The exercise culminated with the destruction of the building.

Did you know?

• The Battle Ground School District handed out hundreds of bricks from the old Central School to former students and staff, and Battle Ground residents on Friday and Saturday. The district plans to hold another brick-giveaway when the standing walls of the school are knocked down in the coming weeks.

• Plans for the giveaway will be announced on the district's website.

• The bricks are free, but donations to the Battle Ground Education Foundation will be accepted.

BATTLE GROUND — On its final day, the old Central School did exactly what it had on its first: provided a learning experience.

Rather than offering first-graders a place to learn the alphabet, the old brick building gave firefighters an opportunity to train for emergencies.

The Central School — the educational home for thousands of kids growing up in Battle Ground — was burned to the ground in a firefighting exercise Saturday, nearly 71 years after it first opened its doors to youngsters.

As they watched the flames consume the school, residents and former students expressed a mix of sadness and amazement.

“There are a lot of memories in that building,” said Dean Paris, who attended the school in the ’80s. “It was basically a second home to a lot of people.”

“It’s pretty sad,” he added, “but it’s kind of like it’s being put to sleep.”

Hundreds of spectators lined the sidewalk along North Parkway Avenue and peered through the chain-link fence as firefighters worked near what was once the school’s front door. Bright orange flames peeked through the white-framed windows, causing kids to screech with excitement.

People armed with cameras and cell phones snapped photos of firefighters tackling the flames. Thick, black smoke billowed from the building, blanketing spectators with the smell of campfire and turning the sky a hazy gray.

The flames stretched from the floor to the attic and then to the roof. The glass windows made popping sounds as they shattered, giving in to the fierce heat. Walls inside the building collapsed as the fire ravaged the school’s interior.

Residents and former students stood mesmerized as the flames swallowed the old brick building.

“It’s kinda weird, knowing it won’t be here,” said Melisa Cook, a Battle Ground resident who graduated from the high school in 2001.

The Central School opened in March 1941. Throughout the years, the 39,000-square-foot building served primarily as an elementary school. Later in its life, as newer schools opened, the old brick building housed overflow classes from Battle Ground High School, some school district offices, a preschool and a small high school theater known as Stage III.

The school closed its doors in 2001.

Hazards removed

As the building fell into disrepair, school district officials decided to turn the building over to area fire agencies for training. Prior to Saturday’s burn, professional crews removed asbestos, mercury and other hazardous material from the building.

“It’s a huge opportunity for volunteers to be able to train and practice in a building of this size,” said Dawn Johnson, spokeswoman for Clark County Fire District 6.

“This gives them the opportunity to be best prepared when they need it in a real-life emergency,” she added.

In addition to the benefits for fire agencies, Saturday’s burn saved the school district thousands of dollars in demolition costs, officials said.

Training exercises began at Central School about two weeks ago. Crews used the building to practice search and rescue operations and building entries, Johnson said.

On Saturday, exercises began at about 10 a.m. About 90 firefighters, many of whom were volunteers at their first live burn, started the morning by attacking small fires inside the building. At about 11 a.m., they moved to the roof with chain saws to practice ventilation techniques.

Then, at about noon, fire crews cleared the building and let the flames consume the old school.

As they watched the building burn, former students lamented that the historic school wasn’t saved years ago and shared memories from their time there: The unexplained noises and ghost stories. The fireplaces in the classrooms. Hamburgers for lunch every Thursday. The Silver Thaw that closed school for days.

“There were some good memories in that school,” one man said. “There really were.”

Marissa Harshman: http://twitter.com/col_health;http://facebook.com/reporterharshman;marissa.harshman@columbian.com; 360-735-4546.