Marshals say fire inspections essential for schools

Officials seek new ways to prevent disaster

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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As fire investigators continue to sift through the charred rubble of the remains of Crestline Elementary School, leveled last week after an early-morning blaze, a question emerges: Could the same thing happen to another school?

With the root cause of the fire slowly coming to light, the answer to the question isn't entirely clear. But school and fire officials around Clark County say even the best efforts to prevent a devastating fire may not be assurance enough.

"I think people in general feel pretty safe about what they do because maybe they don't give fire safety the aspects of importance it deserves," said Clark County Fire Marshal Jon Dunaway. "But having this sort of incident in the minds of everybody keeps it in the forefront of fire safety, as opposed to having people think about what they should have done in hind sight."

Despite what school districts call their best efforts -- which include equipping schools with sprinkler systems, extinguishers and fire walls -- it would be easy for a blaze to rip through a school, especially if buildings were left unchecked, Dunaway said.

Fire marshals inspect schools annually to make sure fire alarms, sprinkler systems and fire extinguishers are working properly. Battle Ground was the most recent district to receive a visit from fire marshals, who completed their inspections this month.

Fire marshals stagger their on-site inspections of schools. The Vancouver School District receives its inspection in September, followed by the Ridgefield School District in October and the Hockinson School District in November.

Marshals will inspect the La Center School District this month. The Evergreen School District, home of Crestline Elementary School, is last on the list, receiving its inspection in April.

A review of Clark County's school districts shows that most, although not all, of the buildings are equipped with sprinkler systems and other measures meant to stop or slow the spread of a fire.

In Battle Ground, Glenwood Heights Elementary School and the welding building at Battle Ground High School are the only structures that aren't equipped with sprinkler systems, said MaryBeth Lynn, assistant superintendent of the Battle Ground School District. Last year, the district replaced the sprinkler system at Maple Grove Elementary School.

Although the district continues its efforts to cut back on fire risks, Lynn cautions that there's "no way you can ensure 100 percent that it doesn't happen."

At the Washougal School District, only Jemtegaard Middle School doesn't meet the 2000 building codes. There are plans to renovate the school in the coming years, Joe Steinbrenner said. He's the district's facilities manager.

La Center district officials say the Crestline fire is fresh on their minds as they prepare for their annual inspection.

"These events serve as a reminder as to why we go through these processes on a regular basis," said Mark Mansell, superintendent of the La Center School District. "They put a light on it."

It isn't the first time in recent memory that a devastating blaze has razed a school to its foundation in the metro area.

In 2009, Marysville School in Southeast Portland caught fire during school hours, displacing students and teachers.

Following $4.5 million in repairs and a nearly four-year wait, the popular school reopened last month.

If Dunaway has one piece of advice for parents, teachers and students, it's to remain vigilant.

"I think there's a feeling that 'This can't happen to me,'" he said. "But I think people should keep what happened in mind."

Tyler Graf: 360-735-4517; http://twitter.com/col_smallcities, tyler.graf@columbian.com