Daily Planet Staff
For the second time in less than a week, a fire forced the early dismissal of classes at Berkeley High School.
But this time around, the damage extended well beyond just a stack of English textbooks.
Just before noon Wednesday, a two-alarm fire broke out in the building that houses administrative offices, the school library and about a dozen classrooms. No one was injured in the incident, but the fire department estimates that the fire caused at least $250,000 in damage to the building.
Witnesses said that the fire began in a photocopy room on the first floor. Berkeley Fire Department Asst. Chief David Orth would only say that the most extensive damage occurred in one room on the first floor. He would not confirm or deny if it was the copy room, although the school’s principal indicated there was significant damage to that room.
Orth also would not say whether the fire was considered to be arson or some kind of accident. The department is labeling it “a serious fire that is treated as a suspicious fire now,” he said.
Only the B Building, located just north of Donahue Gym, was damaged in the fire, but the school initially evacuated the C Building because of smoke coming from the B Building. Around 12:30 p.m., the school announced that classes were dismissed for the rest of the day, and a short time later, most of the campus was evacuated.
Classes will continue at Berkeley High today, although classes that regularly meet in the B Building will be relocated temporarily. The school district released a letter to parents outlining campus conditions for the rest of this week (see sidebar at right).
Principal Theresa Saunders said the fire could have a “huge” impact on administrative services and activities. The biggest known impact will be in photocopy services, because all of the school’s copiers are located in the heavily damaged room, she said.
Other impacts won’t be fully known until today or Friday, when administrators are able to make a more detailed assessment of damage. That could include water damage to computers and files, and moisture damage to the school library, which is located on the second floor of the B Building.
But Saunders hopes full activity can resume in the B Building by April 24. The school will be on spring break next week, providing some time for repairs.
As of Wednesday night, the fire department retained control of the building. Orth said the district may be given control sometime today, but only after the BFD has completed its investigation.
Flames did cause extensive damage on the first floor Wednesday but were not visible from the outside of the building.
The fire brought an initial response of three engines, one truck and a chief officer. The second alarm brought two more engines and a ladder truck, Orth said. Two ambulances also responded. He said the department had 33 firefighters and others who assisted at the fire scene Wednesday.
The fire departments of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a detail of Oakland firefighters were standing by to assist in fighting other fires if they occurred in Berkeley while the BFD was at the high school.
Berkeley High students and staff have become accustomed to fire drills and alarms – in fact, too accustomed, some say. A number of people said they didn’t believe it was a serious fire until they saw how much smoke was coming from the building.
Student Activities Coordinator Jamie Marantz said at first she “thought it was just another trash can fire” when she heard the command to clear the building. But as she turned off her computer the entire room was filled with smoke, most of which seemed to be pouring into her office through ceiling tiles that had been punctured, ironically enough, in one of last year’s fires.
Maya Joseph, a sophomore, was in her English class at 12:15 p.m. when she smelled a lot of smoke.
“I started coughing and then Mr. Wiggan (B. Wiggan, security services manager), said, ‘Come on everybody, we have to get out fast.’”
Jeremy Reimann, another sophomore, was walking through the C Building to his history class when he saw the smoke billowing out from the B Building, which is connected to the C Building by a second-floor walkway.
Reimann said the fire evacuations have been a nuisance, “but when you have a lot of them, it’s a real distraction. Some things are not getting done.”
Other students expressed similar frustrations with the ongoing problems.
“I think it’s terrible that people are trying to burn down our school. They’re trying to mess up our education,” said Maya Joseph.
Obataiye Akintunde pointed out that for most students, the early dismissal meant the loss of at least two hours of class Wednesday.
“We’re out here chillin,’” he said. “I wonder why we’re out here like this. We could be getting our education. It’s crazy. This is a high school here.”
Another student, Jonathan Smith, said he missed his presentation on African-American inventors that was to take place Wednesday afternoon.
Teachers were reluctant to talk on the record, but many expressed frustration, or outright anger, at the ongoing fire problems at Berkeley High. There have been around 24 fires on campus in the last two school years, although only three of them have occurred during the current school year.
The most recent incident happened last Thursday afternoon, when a small arson fire in the English Department’s bookroom forced the early dismissal of classes. That blaze turned out to be pretty minor – fire only damaged a few stacks of book, and water damage appeared limited to the room. The C Building was inaccessible to students and teachers while firefighters conducted their investigation, which would have forced teachers to hold classes in Civic Center Park or near the football field. Officials felt those options weren’t feasible, so school was dismissed just after 1:30 p.m. The arson remains under investigation.