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Otter Valley fire leaves damage and questions

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April 16, 2007

By CYRUS LEVESQUE

BRANDON — As Otter Valley Union High School cleans up after a fire last Wednesday that was set in a first-floor girl’s bathroom, a lot of work remains to determine both how the fire started and how the school will fix the damage.

At about 12:50 p.m. on April 11, a fire began in the bathroom near the gym, and smoke spread through the ventilation system to the second-floor bathroom directly above it. The school was quickly evacuated and no one was hurt.

The Brandon and Pittsford fire departments both responded to the alarm. According to OVUHS board Chair Jim Rademacher, the damage would have been much worse if the response had taken even just two or three minutes longer. “Most of the original building would have been gone,” he said.

The Vermont State Police Fire Investigation Unit is treating the incident as a serious criminal act, state police Det. Sgt. Jim Cruise said at the usual OVUHS school board meeting on Wednesday night, which was held at the Brandon Fire House instead of the school.

According to school administrators, April 11 was the one-year anniversary of another fire at OVUHS, which was started in a boys’ bathroom. The school has experienced 13 false fire alarms in the last 14 months, including three on Tuesday and Wednesday. None of those incidents have been solved.

However, Associate Principal Nancy Robinson said they are not assuming the same person or people as last year started the fire. “We have no reason to believe that,” she said, partly because last year it was in a boys’ bathroom but this year it was in a girls’ bathroom. “That had not even occurred to us.”

The extent of damage done and the cost of making repairs are not yet known. The first floor bathroom was severely damaged by the fire but, according to Rademacher, the upstairs bathroom received little more than smoke damage. “It looks like the upstairs one, with some good quality cleaning and replacing ceiling tiles and maybe some lights, should be OK,” he said.

Some additional damage may not be apparent at this point, like smoke damage. Rademacher said that it is not yet known how far smoke damage to the ventilation system might have spread.

Estimates of repair costs vary widely. So far, all are preliminary, and the board and administration hope that insurance will help with repairs. “It could be six figures, who knows,” Rademacher said.

However, school Principal Dana Cole-Levesque said that estimates previously reported in the Rutland Herald of hundreds of thousands of dollars or more “seemed to be excessive.”

Problems with the ventilation system and fire alarms were on the mind of the board and school administration before Wednesday. Upgrades to both of those aging systems, parts of which date to the school’s construction in 1960 and 1961, were part of a bond package proposed by voters and defeated at town meeting. In fact, Cole-Levesque was scheduled to meet with the fire chief just minutes after the fire started.

School was cancelled the day after the fire, but reopened on Friday for one final day before April vacation. Robinson said the school hopes to have most of the repair work done by the end of vacation.

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