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Fire closes Outlook school

District to decide this Tuesday long term plan for school's students and staff

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More than 70 firefighters from 14 stations around the Valley responded to the fire Sunday afternoon.

OUTLOOK - Outlook Elementary School third graders Hunter Perez and Heidi Lancaster huddled together, comforting each other as they watched their school burn yesterday.

The blaze was reported at about noon Sunday and brought a response from 71 firefighters representing 14 different stations up and down the Yakima Valley.

At its peak, smoke from the fire could be seen throughout the Lower Valley. There were also reports of smoke visible from the Yakima area.

"It's scary," said Hunter, as she looked on from a sidewalk a safe distance away.

"I was upset," classmate Heidi said of her first thoughts when she heard about the fire. "It's sad."

As the Sunnyside School District tallies damages of what may be $2 million or more, Hunter kept a list of her own.

"I had crayons, markers, scissors, glue, paper, work sheets and a math book in there," Hunter noted calmly, as if reciting a shopping list.

But the scene around her was anything but calm, as firefighters and ladder trucks scrambled to contain the fire to a location used as a multi-purpose commons area, formerly a gym.

School board member Miguel Puente was among those watching the battle to save the building unfold. "The school building is so representative of the community," he observed.

That's especially true in Outlook, an unincorporated community of about 500 folks. Its school is the only one in the Sunnyside School District situated outside of the Sunnyside city limits.

The fire was all too familiar for Cathy Mears, a principal at the school for 28 years, who saw fire damage the building back in January 1986.

Mears, who retired following the 2005-06 school year, said an electrical short caused the 1986 fire.

"It's an awful sight," Mears said yesterday as she joined about 50 or 60 friends and family of the school in watching the fire. "I just thank God there were no children or staff in the building."

Ironically, the fire torched an area-which included the commons, kitchen and a stage-that was untouched by the 1986 fire, Mears said. She estimated the portion burned yesterday dates back to about 50 or 60 years.

The Sunnyside School Board met in an emergency session last night to take a quick assessment of the damages.

The roof over the old gym or commons area collapsed, allowing firefighters to trap and contain the fire there. Crews were still on the scene late into the night mopping up the fire.

Braven Bendzak, the district's facilities director, told the board and an audience of about 50 people that the old gym, cafeteria and much of the commons areas were a total loss and would likely have to be gutted.

The fourth and fifth grade wings of the school received water and smoke damage and the rest of the school had smoke damage. The wooden floor of the new gym will have to be replaced, Bendzak said, because of water damage.

The board expressed appreciation for the united effort by firefighters to save the rest of the building.

Firefighters came from District #5 units in Wapato, Sawyer, Toppenish, Zillah, Granger, Outlook, Sunnyside and Grandview.

Also responding were city fire crews from Toppenish, Sunnyside, Grandview, Union Gap, Naches Heights, Gleed and East Valley.

The Red Cross and Yakima County Sheriff's office provided aid, as did Amerigas Propane, which provided propane to fuel the school's water pump.

"We had a good response," said District 5 Battalion Chief Todd Lenseigne.

Lenseigne said the school's pump provided 900 gallons of water a minute, while today's fire rigs have the capacity to pump 2,000 gallons a minute.

"We didn't initially have enough water source, so that's why we called extra stations," he said.

"What we're going to do is study the whole fire suppression system at Outlook," Cole said, noting the existing system meets county codes. "The system we have performed up to what it was supposed to," he said of the 900 gallons per minute. "But maybe it's time to step up what we have there."

Lenseigne said the fire was not completely extinguished until 10:30 p.m. last night.

He said the building's construction in the kitchen/cafeteria area where the fire began was a contributing factor in why it took more than 10 hours to completely put the blaze out.

"It's lightweight construction and typically gets a little hot and collapses," he said. "We were very concerned with it collapsing."

As a result firefighters had to battle the flames from an adjacent roof and from ladder trucks.

Another hindrance was that the fire got caught between the old and new gyms. "They had a double roof system and the fire got stuck in there," Lenseigne said.

Just as an electrical shortage caused the fire in 1984, there was some talk that yesterday's fire was related to a power outage this past Friday.

"We don't know anything for sure," Superintendent Dr. Rick Cole cautioned the crowd at last night's board meeting. "We don't know where the fire started."

Cole said the district fully modernized the building six years ago.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation by the county fire marshal and the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms' (ATF) Yakima unit. Lenseigne said ATF was on the scene this morning and responded because damages are expected to exceed $1 million.

While there are a host of unknowns as of now-including where Outlook's 615 students will attend school during repairs-district officials are already working on a transition.

Cole said the district will decide on a long-term plan by noon tomorrow (Tuesday) for Outlook's students and staff.

In addition, the board approved an emergency resolution authorizing Cole to waive the formal bidding process to repair Outlook Elementary as soon as possible. Time is of the essence, Bendzak said, in order to tackle water damage and to prevent possible freezing.

Cole said the district's deductible with its insurer, Canfield and Associates, is $1,000. The district is insured for up to $10 million per occurrence. Cole said if a building was totally destroyed by fire, then a clause in the insurance would call for complete replacement of the structure.

In the short term, the district has canceled classes at Outlook for today and tomorrow since the Christmas/New Year's break begins this Wednesday.

For parents of Outlook students who do not have access to child care during the two-day school closure, the district will provide supervised care at the Lincoln gym, 1110 S. Sixth St., during school hours.

The district's free and reduced meal program for Outlook students will continue at the Lincoln gym for today and tomorrow.

So, the 2006-07 school year will go on for Outlook students like Hunter and Heidi.

But it won't be the same.

Maria Hernandez, Outlook's assistant principal, said counseling may be needed for some students.

Robert Bowman, in his first year as principal at Outlook, was visiting his mother in Wenatchee when he got word of the fire.

"This wave of sadness hits you," he said of the initial shock at the news. "You realize this school year won't be a regular school experience for the children."

The fire and its aftermath will require the district to, at least temporarily, change its focus on facilities improvement. The district has been looking towards an additional elementary school and improvements at the high school.

"It's going to take our energy and initiative," he said of recovering from the fire.

He then smiled as he looked around the crowded Denny Blaine board room, "This is a great team. We'll get on top of this."

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