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High school saved: Adjoining North Queens Elementary School destroyed by fire determined to be arson

Adjoining North Queens Elementary School destroyed by a fire determined to be arson

December 11, 2007
By Al Kingsbury

Topics

22Adult newspaper carrier Tina Mansfield gave a friendly wave to Terry DeLong as she noticed him arriving for work early at the highway department depot in Caledonia on Sept. 14, 2006. Little did she think at the time that she would be seeing him soon again and under much different circumstances.

PHOTO BY JOYE KAULBACK
Flames devour North Queens Elementary School in Caledonia, N.S.

As Mansfield made her early morning rounds in the small rural community in Queens County, about midway between the South Shore and the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia, she began to notice the smell of “heavy smoke.” It seemed to be coming from the direction of West Caledonia Road and as she glanced up the hill around 5 a.m. she saw fire breaking out of one of the eaves of the North Queens Elementary School.

Mansfield rushed to a nearby pay phone, but that was out of service, so she jumped back into her vehicle and sped to the highway shed, “tooting my horn and calling to Terry DeLong.” She told him about the fire and he made the call to summon North Queens Fire Association at 5:11 a.m.

Deputy Chief John Berry was first at the scene, stopping by the school on his way to the fire hall, where he sounded the air siren that is used only for serious incidents to alert the village.

The first truck left the station at 5:14 and firefighters immediately began laying the first of 1,200 feet of hose from a dry hydrant at Caledonia Lake. Mutual aid was called from Greenfield, 40 kilometres away, and Liverpool, 51 km away. Soon after, calls went out to Bridgewater and Annapolis Royal and Hemford’s department was asked to send a stand-by crew and truck to Caledonia.

Fully involved
When firefighters arrived at the school they could see the stairwell was fully involved and steam was coming out the back of the 42-year-old building, which also housed a nursery school.

By the time Fire Chief Karl Carver had made the 17-km drive from his home, former chief Scott Hawkes had called Van Dyke Excavating to bring an excavator to the scene. North Queens firefighters had determined during a pre-planning exercise a few years earlier that in the event of a major fire at either the elementary school or North Queens Rural High, a pedway that joins the two two-storey wooden structures would have to be cut.
It was almost an hour before the excavator, which had been on location in another part of the county, reached the fire scene and began clawing at the pedway. As the machine bit into the wooden structure, flames leapt seven metres into the air, indicating the hallway was acting like a chimney and drawing flames toward the high school, Carver said.

Early in the battle, four firefighters attempted to enter the burning building but were forced back by intense heat, so the attack had to be confined to the exterior.

In total, 20 pieces of apparatus, including six tankers, six pumpers and two aerial ladders, were used to draw water from Caledonia Lake and another pond in the area and pour it onto the blaze.

As flames shot more than 20 metres into the air, the heat was so intense at one point that it melted plastic playground equipment in the schoolyard and triggered sprinklers in the section of the high school closest to the fire. The high school also sustained extensive smoke damage throughout the structure.

The closest exposure off site was a home about 60 metres downwind. Firefighters initially hosed that down, and one firefighter stood by to watch for flying embers. Ash from the fire was found as far away as South Brookfield, seven kilometres from the scene, Carver reported.

The fire was brought under control in about an hour and a half, but firefighters remained on the scene throughout the day, dousing the remains of the structure and dealing with flare-ups.

The estimated loss of $1 million covers the building and its contents, which included a new piano and band instruments for the school’s music program that was being expanded.

The community immediately rallied support, Carver said, and firefighters and investigators “never went hungry.” Residents and businesses contributed food and drinks throughout the day. The local credit union set up an account to receive donations to assist the school and Carver said that during a weekend breakfast at the fire hall, residents – some of whom had not previously been big supporters of the fire service – wrote cheques, which he said will help in a campaign to build a new station.

An initial investigation that revealed the high school had been broken into during the night led to the determination that the fire in the elementary school was a case of arson, so the RCMP was investigating that aspect.

South Shore Regional School Board immediately began the task of restoring the high school for its 280 students and ordered portable classrooms to be brought in to eventually accommodate the 120 students from the elementary school. The cleanup operation at the high school went well and the building was expected to be ready for use within three weeks.

Within a week after the blaze, the province’s department of education announced that it would fast track existing plans to renovate the high school and to add an elementary wing to the building.

Carver said that one lesson from the fire was to remember how each department works, because they don’t often get an opportunity to work together, due to the distances involved. “But your basic training kicks in, and makes it so easy.”

Department profile
Carver has been chief of North Queens Fire Association for two years, and had an earlier stint of six years as chief. The association’s 32 members have responsibility for covering 680 square kilometres of rural Queens County, with two pumpers, a pumper-tanker, a cube rescue van with air bottles and medical supplies, and a Suburban equipped with medical supplies and capacity for seven passengers. The association provides first-responder medical service and about 75 per cent of its 139 calls last year were for medical emergencies.


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