Daily Planet Staff
Investigators have determined that Wednesday’s fire at Berkeley High was an arson, and they’ve increased the damage estimate to the $750,000-$1 million range.
The ongoing saga of fires at Berkeley High School took yet another twist Thursday, when the previous day’s fire managed to rekindle, leading to the early dismissal of classes yet again. But this time, students were told, classes were canceled for the rest of the week. Put another way: Spring break would begin immediately.
The original-and-rekindled fire occurred in the school’s B Building, which houses administrative offices, the library, the Health Center and about a dozen classrooms. The Berkeley Fire Department responded to the original fire on Wednesday, just past noon, and administrators decided to cancel classes for the rest of the day because of smoky conditions and the potential risk to students and staff. Thursday morning, firefighters were back on campus, but they hadn’t returned to continue their investigation. They were there to fight the rekindled fire in the B Building’s photocopy room, which Orth said turned out to be a “relatively insignificant” fire of reams of paper and wooden cabinets.
Exactly when the fire was rekindled is unclear.
“When I came to school at 7:10 a.m., I smelled the smoke,” said one school worker who asked not to be identified by name.
Berkeley Fire Department Asst. Chief David Orth confirmed that one employee did smell smoke around 7 a.m. but no one called in to report the fire. Orth said the department received a call around 8 a.m.
Walter Mitchell, a high school safety officer, however, said he heard the first engine at 7:55 a.m. “I thought it might be left over” from Wednesday’s fire, he said.
Orth admitted that the fire department took a “calculated risk” in how it handled the fire scene. He said that normally, firefighters will “haul everything out and wet things down” to make sure there are no embers that could rekindle a blaze. With the BHS fire, the department was looking at a potential crime scene, so everything could be considered potential evidence.
He said the crews remained at the scene until around 8 p.m. Wednesday, and he made a final inspection around 10:30 p.m.
Classes for the rest of the week were canceled not so much because of Thursday’s rekindled fire but because of the damage the original fire caused to the school’s infrastructure. All of the school’s copy machines were damaged, administrators and counselors were unable to get into their offices, and the school’s telecommunication system was damaged along its route through the B Building.
Students were directed to the Community Theater around 9 a.m. Thursday, where they were told that school would be shut down until April 24, after spring break. They poured out of the theater cheering and calling to each other.
“Spring break starts today,” yelled one young man in a gray-hooded sweatshirt.
“It’s good,” said Ivy Braum, who was practically skipping down the theater steps.
Other students said their excitement for an extended spring break was tempered by concerns about how the fire’s damage would affect the rest of the school year.
“It’s really cool,” said Jessica Kravin, who was standing with a group of friends.
“But I don’t want the library or any of the resources to burn,” Sharon Koppman added.
“If they catch (the arsonists), they should pay for the damages,” said Kelly Friedman.
“Last year the parents had to pay,” Jessica said, referring to the numerous arson fires last year.
While most the students appeared elated, three young men stood apart, watching the firefighters, until they were directed away.
“This really is annoying,” one said. “We barely get to do anything in class.”
Classes were dismissed early on April 6 because of a small arson fire in the C Building, and Orth reported that another fire occurred around 11:45 a.m. Thursday in the A Building, which is an extension of the Community Theater. That fire, which was deliberately set, was reported by teachers attending a meeting.
Orth said there are some similarities between Wednesday’s fire in the administrative building and last week’s incident in the C Building, which occurred in the English department bookroom. Students aren’t supposed to have access to either room where the fires were started.
“There are issues of access that are similar, some similarities in the fact that the fires were started by lighting combustibles,” he said. “There are the sorts of things we’re looking at, but they’re very broad similarities.”
Principal Theresa Saunders said that some staff members were able to go back into the B Building on Thursday afternoon to retrieve essential items. Workers also were able to round up the SAT-9 standardized tests that students had taken just last week.
Damage inside the building is worse than original estimates. Saunders said it could take the Health Center up to four months to be restored.
After spring break, some classes may be held in portable classrooms while work is being done on the B Building.
Orth said his department will probably be finished with its investigation today, and will turn full control of the building back to the district by the end of the day. The arson investigation will be a joint operation of the fire department, police department and school district.