School officials are scurrying to relocate about 30 three- and four-year-old pupils after a suspicious fire roared through a wing of their preschool Saturday, one of two suspected arson-caused fires set just blocks apart.
Fire inspectors and Berkeley Unified District School officials who toured the charred grounds at Franklin Preschool at 1460 Eigth St. Monday declared that two of the school’s five classrooms would be off-limits indefinitely.
David Eastman, a BUSD project manager, said the north wing of the building, home to two classrooms that housed about 50 students, would likely have to be demolished.
The other three classrooms will be re-opened Wednesday, accommodating 90 of the school’s 125 students, said BUSD Spokesperson Mark Coplan.
At press time Monday, school officials said they still hadn’t determined the status of one class with about 30 students and a special education class with two students.
Coplan said the district planned to move the two special education students into similar programs in the district’s two other preschools and that the 30-student class would either be housed in an open classroom at Rosa Parks Elementary School, or be dispersed into other preschool classes.
“The fire appears to be arson,” said Berkeley Fire Department Spokesman Assistant Chief David Orth.
He said the one-alarm blaze was apparently started shortly before noon by somebody burning combustibles—possibly paper—outside the north wing of the building.
Orth said firefighters spotted the fire as they were refilling their tanker at a nearby hydrant after responding to another suspected arson a few blocks away.
The firefighters managed to keep the fire from jumping into the south wing of the C-shaped building, which only sustained broken windows and cosmetic damage.
Three firefighters suffered injuries at the blaze, which Orth said was tricky to extinguish because of an east wind blowing hot dry air onto the scene. One firefighter fell through a burnt floor, another suffered burns to his face and a third keeled over from heat exhaustion.
Orth said all three were back at work Monday.
The other fire ignited a fence on the 2000 block of Tenth Street; Orth could not confirm if the two incidents were related.
Firefighters originally estimated the damage at $115,000, but Coplan said that after the inspection, officials believed the final tally would run far higher.
The school’s insurance policy is expected to pay for the damages.
Franklin Preschool is available only to students whose parents work during the school day. All of the school’s students stayed home Monday, but Berkeley Early Childhood Education Principal John Santoro said that students and their families needed to return as soon as possible. “If they don’t go to school, their parents can’t go to work,” he said.
Berkeley police are investigating the incident, but did not return telephone calls Monday evening.
Erik Olson contributed to this story.