June 3, 2006 Ashland Fire and Rescue Chief Woodley talks on his radio outside of the badly burned section of Ashland High School. Photos by Orville Hector | Daily Tidings Blaze destroys AHS room Students evacuated, no

Blaze destroys AHS room

Students evacuated, no one hurt

A burning couch at Ashland High School sent smoke billowing out of the building Friday afternoon, destroying one room and blocking traffic on Mountain Avenue for more than an hour.

No one was hurt in the fire.

— — The fire was contained to one section of the building behind the gymnasium of the school.

The blaze started at about 2:30 p.m. during a schoolwide farewell assembly for the Ashland seniors, who will graduate June 9. One student came running across the gym floor in the middle of the event frantically telling teachers there was a fire in a back room. Three Ashland High teachers immediately fought the blaze with fire extinguishers but found it futile and pulled alarms and called the fire department.

“Three of us cycled in and out of there,” social studies teacher Paul Huard said. “It was awful. I just saw a ball of flame. I got down on my knees and started spraying the flames, but the smoke was so thick I couldn’t see.”

Bill Gabriel, another social studies teacher, said the flames from a blazing couch were too much for the three teachers.

“You could see the flames,” Gabriel said. “We’d knock them down, and they’d come right back.”

Ashland High principal Jeff Schlecht said getting the couch out of the smoky room was not an option.

“We were trying to get the couch out, but the black, rolling smoke drove us away,” Schlecht said.

Many students thought the alarm was a fire drill. When they walked out into the street and saw flames and smoke coming out of windows facing Mountain Avenue, however, they realized it was no drill.

“We just thought it was a fire drill,” Ashland senior Danny Wells said. “We knew it was serious when the teachers started telling us to go far away.”

The fire sparked a call for the whole on-duty shift of Ashland firemen and reinforcements from Jackson County Fire District 5 and Phoenix and Medford fire departments. Firemen were able to contain the blaze to one room, which it completely destroyed, Ashland fire chief Keith Woodley said. Besides some smoke damage to walls outside of the storage room behind the gym, the fire did not spread. Flashing lights and scattered fire hoses lined the street outside of the school, drawing inquisitive looks from people driving along Siskiyou Boulevard. Students and faculty had already evacuated the building by the time the fire department arrived. The Ashland Fire Marshal started investigating the scene Friday afternoon.

Woodley said the department arrived to flames and smoke coming out of the building but was able to put the fire out from the unburned side of the building.

“The guys got a quick knock down on it,” Woodley said.

The fire chief said the last time he could remember a serious call to the high school was when a circulation fan in the attic of the gym froze a few years ago.

Thursday’s fire started shortly after two students roller-skated through the gym holding sparklers. Some witnesses said students may have put the sparklers on the couch in the storage room, igniting it. The Ashland Fire Department began interviewing students and staff at the scene Friday afternoon and will conduct an investigation.

“We have no reason to believe it wasn’t accidental,” Schlecht said as he stood in the gym, near the torched room. He said the incident’s silver lining was students’ quick, efficient evacuation of the building.

“The really positive thing was the response of the kids in the gym,” Schlecht said. “Kids exited the building in an orderly fashion.”

The old high school gym is one of a number of Ashland School District buildings that may undergo renovations in the coming years if a general obligation bond passes in November. A somewhat relieved Ashland School District superintendent Juli Di Chiro showed up at the scene to find everyone safe.

“The very good news is that no one was hurt and everyone responded properly,” Di Chiro said.

Staff writer Alan Panebaker can be reached at 482-3456 x 227 or apanebaker@dailytidings.com.


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