UPDATED: Fire at Ashland Middle School apparently was set

Updated 4 p.m. A small fire in the boys bathroom at Ashland Middle School today — started in a paper-towel dispenser — appears to have been intentionally set, according to Ashland School Superintendent Juli Di Chiro.

Ashland Fire Department spokesman Chris Chambers declined to comment on the cause, saying the blaze is still under investigation.

The fire, which triggered alarms at 11:06 a.m., caused only smoke damage, not structural harm, and no rebuilding will be required, said Di Chiro, after inspecting the bathroom on the south wing.

“We have to look at it in more detail, though,” she said.

The apparent arson has triggered an investigation by the school system, Di Chiro said, adding it melted the dispenser, which is made of plastic. Chambers said that when you look in the bathroom, it's entirely black all over from smoke.

Hundreds of students watched from soccer fields as firefighters knocked down the blaze in a matter of 15 to 20 minutes.

All smoke and hazards were “cleared” by 12:45, and students were let back into the new part of the middle school on the north campus, where they had lunch. Then students and teachers were let back into the farthest portions of the old building, Di Chiro said, and school went on as normal.

A new auto-dial alert system successfully called all parents, telling them of the fire either by voicemail, text or email. However, because they were evacuated, school staff said they weren't able to “push the go button” until they were let back in the building about 12:45.

Very few parents were upset or came to the school, they added, because the message told them the fire was out and everyone was OK.

-- John Darling

Updated 12:18 p.m. Ashland firefighters knocked down a small blaze at Ashland Middle School this morning.

A fire alarm in the school triggered the call shortly after 11 a.m. and sent four engines scrambling to the scene while hundreds of evacuated children watched from soccer fields.

A damage estimate was not immediately available.

Smoke was billowing from the roof when firefighters arrived and they quickly “knocked the fire down,” said Chris Chambers, spokesperson for Ashland Fire & Rescue. “They're checking to see if there's any fire in the attic.”

Ashland School Superintendent Juli Di Chiro, who rushed to the scene, said smoke was seen rolling out of a bathroom on the south end.

“It's old slap-dash construction from the '70s, with no crawl space and no sprinkler system, built for the rush of baby boomers of the day,” she said.

She added that “we're keeping our fingers crossed that it wasn't started by a student.”

Schools are required now to have sprinkler systems, but AMS isn't required to install one unless there's a major remodel, she said.

Battalion Chief Dana Sallee said, “We saw smoke billowing out of the roof when we got here.”

It may take hours or even days to determine the cause and dollar amount of damage, said Chambers.

Walker Avenue was closed while crews worked, but has reopened.

-- John Darling

11:50 a.m. Fire crews are working at a reported fire at Ashland Middle School.

The fire alarm went off at 11:06 a.m. at the school at 100 Walker Ave., emergency dispatch records show. Firefighters arrived to see smoke and triggered a second alarm to call more firefighters and fire engines to the scene.

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