Investigation of Whatcom Middle School fire ongoing

BELLINGHAM - Investigators suspect the Whatcom Middle School fire started in between the second-floor library's ceiling and the roof, but they need more time to determine how it ignited.

The Bellingham School District estimates damages to be about $20 million, Bellingham Fire Chief Bill Boyd said.

The Fire Department hoped to have the cause of the Nov. 5 fire identified by the start of 2010, but Boyd said more time is needed to complete forensic examinations of the library's electrical system and structure.

Private investigators, hired by insurance companies for the school district and a contractor working on the school, are testing a chunk of a beam taken from the suspected source of the fire, Boyd said. They're also testing electrical wiring and conduits taken from that area, he said.

At the time of the fire, the school was going through a $3 million retrofit to improve its seismic stability, and the library was undergoing construction as part of that.

Boyd said the investigators reached their conclusion on the fire's origin based on initial witness reports, firefighters' observations and the pattern of damage in the library.

Boyd couldn't estimate when those test results will be released but said they are needed as part of the investigators' process of eliminating causes.

"If you suspect just one thing, you come up with a foregone conclusion," Boyd said. "You have to eliminate all possible causes."

Boyd said a report prepared by Division Chief Jason Napier, the department's fire marshal, will be released Monday, Jan. 25, and will include a summary of what happened, why the investigators believe the fire started where it did and their actions so far.

Members of the Bellingham Fire Department, the Bellingham Police Department, the Whatcom County Fire Marshal's Office, North Whatcom Fire and Rescue and the private companies are investigating the fire, Boyd said.

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