Arson suspected in school fire

Paper-towel dispenser set ablaze at Ashland Middle School; no injuries
Students wait in the soccer fields while firefighters conduct their investigation.Jamie Lusch

ASHLAND — A paper-towel dispenser set afire in the boys' bathroom at Ashland Middle School triggered two alarms and disrupted classes for nearly two hours Tuesday morning.

Ashland schools Superintendent Juli Di Chiro said the fire in the school's south wing appeared to have been set intentionally. It caused smoke damage in the bathroom but not structural harm, so rebuilding likely won't be necessary, she said.

"We have to look at it in more detail, though," she said. The district will conduct its own investigation into the apparent arson, she said.

A fire alarm in the school triggered a call to dispatch at 11:06 a.m. and students were evacuated to the soccer fields. No one was injured.

"We saw smoke billowing out of the roof when we got here," said Battalion Chief Dana Sallee.

A second alarm was called. A total of four engines from Ashland Fire & Rescue and Jackson County Fire District No. 5 responded, knocking the fire down within 15 to 20 minutes.

The fire melted the plastic dispenser, Di Chiro said. Black smoke blanketed the bathroom, said Chris Chambers, spokesman for Ashland Fire & Rescue.

Di Chiro described the building as "old slap-dash construction from the '70s, with no crawl space and no sprinkler system, built for the rush of baby boomers of the day."

Schools now are required to have sprinkler systems, but Ashland Middle School isn't required to install one unless there's a major remodel, she said.

Students were allowed back into the newer part of the school on the north side of campus for lunch at 12:45 p.m. Then school resumed as normal campuswide, Di Chiro said.

A new auto-dial alert system told parents of the fire by voicemail, text and email. However, because they were evacuated, school staff said they weren't able to "push the go button" until they were let back in the building.

Very few parents were upset or came to the school, they added, because the message told them the fire was out and everyone was OK.

The system, required by the 2011 Legislature, is used to notify parents about snow days, unexcused absences and special events, said Di Chiro.

It may take days to determine the cause and dollar amount of damage, Chambers said.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.



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