NEWS

Oliver, B.C., high school ravaged by fire

09/12/2011 10:27 EDT | Updated 11/12/2011 05:12 EST

Teachers and students are left wondering what's next after much of Southern Okanagan Secondary School caught fire early Monday morning.

A massive fire tore through the only high school in Oliver, B.C., around 2 a.m. PT Monday. The fire burned much of the structure to the ground, but there are no reports of any injuries.

Greg Smith taught at the school for two decades. The recently retired teacher watched Monday morning as the school was consumed by fire.

“This was a wall of flame, going up a couple of hundred feet and then the cinders were going up and flying around."

All that remains of his former classroom is a smouldering heap of rubble.

"It's terrifying to know that it's all disappeared," said Grade 11 student Kelsey Beckett.

The school's historic Frank Venables auditorium, which is an older wooden structure, had been undergoing a major renovation after the community raised money to save it from demolition. The renovation also included construction of a new science area, gym, multi-purpose classrooms and shop buildings.

The new gymnasium was unveiled as the school year opened this fall, says teacher Jesse McKinnon.

“The kids they were just wide-eyed when they came in on the first day and checking out the new building and to have it in absolute cinders in pretty heartbreaking.”

Firewall saves new section of school

Despite earlier concerns that the newly renovated sections had been destroyed in the blaze, fire officials told CBC News at around 10 a.m. that’s not the case. Officials said the unrenovated sections of the school have burned to the ground, but the school’s newly renovated wings were protected by a firewall.

Fire officials said there is slight damage to the exterior of the new section, and the extent of smoke and water damage is unknown.

The fire department said about 30 firefighters from as far away as Okanagan Falls and Keremeos are involved in fighting the fire.

The mayor of Oliver, Pat Hampson, told CBC News at 8 a.m. Monday morning the fire was burning out of control and he did not expect firefighters would be able to put out the flames.

"That east wing is pretty much burnt away. The south wing is on fire and the Venables auditorium is on fire. It's probably going to be three or four hours I would say conservatively. What is going to happen is the fire is going to run out of fuel. It's not a controllable fire," said Hampson.

Classes cancelled

Young said there will be no classes for the estimated 350 students of the school until a new location can be found.

"Staff have all been contacting and trying to get the message out to parents and to students that they are to remain home and we are currently starting to work on plans for alternate arrangements for students to go and teachers to go for instruction," said Young.

Classes at other schools in the community are not expected to be affected, but the mayor said the loss of the school will have a major impact on the small community.

"It's going to devastate the community. It's going to devastate people who went to school and who go to school now. It's going to have a major impact on the students. Students are going to have to be housed somewhere, and there will be economic impacts as well," said Hampson.

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