Investigation begins into cause of Whatcom Middle School fire

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDNovember 6, 2009 

While numerous ladder trucks ringed Whatcom Middle School to battle the blaze that gutted the historic building Thursday morning, Nov. 5, one remained in use Friday for a different purpose - investigating the fire's cause.

Investigators with the Bellingham fire and police departments climbed up the ladder truck to get an aerial glimpse of an area of the school's roof where contractors were welding hours before the fire, Bellingham Fire Marshal Jason Napier said.

"It was just getting my first glance up there and putting my eyes on what was going on," Napier said.

The fire is believed to have started in that area of the building, Principal Jeff Coulter said. Napier said investigators have not compiled enough evidence to confirm the fire's point of origin.

The welders wrapped up work on the roof at about 9:30 p.m. Wednesday and kept a watch on the area for a few hours afterward, but saw no signs of a fire starting, said Assistant Chief Roger Christensen of the Bellingham Fire Department.

The fire started about 1 a.m., Fire Chief Bill Boyd said.

The welding was part of a $3 million project to improve the school's structural stability in an earthquake.

The damaged building is not structurally sound enough for investigators to enter safely. It needs to have its walls shored up before that can happen, Napier said.

Reid Middleton, an Everett-based engineering firm the Bellingham School District hired for the initial seismic retrofit, is now tasked to draw up plans on how to shore up the school's walls.

Belfor USA Group Inc. has been hired to do the shoring work, said its operations manager, Ross Minshull.

That work likely will mean planting concrete blocks in 10- to 12-foot intervals into the lawn outside the school, and then attaching steel beams that will brace the walls for support, Minshull said.

The engineering firm will submit its plans to the school district, which will then pass them along to Minshull. He'll submit them to a city engineer for approval and to get a permit for the work, Minshull said.

Minshull couldn't speculate how long that process will take but said all parties were working as quickly as possible.

He said the shoring work should take about a week to complete.

In the meantime, investigators have 15 interviews to conduct with neighbors, witnesses and people inside the building Wednesday night.

"Once we actually get inside, we'll know what we're looking at," Napier said. "(The source of the fire) is inside the walls there somewhere."

Reach PETER JENSEN at peter.jensen@bellinghamherald.com or call 360-715-2264.

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