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Smoky culprit . . . Members of the Kenmare Fire Department
pulled the smoking ash cart and wooden shelving at left out of
the high school's furnace area to extinguish the flames. The fire
was contained to those items and did not damage any walls
in the building or extend beyond the ash room.
Small coal ash fire quickly contained
By Caroline Downs
A fire at Kenmare High School Thursday morning caused students and staff to evacuate the building on the coldest morning of the winter so far, with temperatures hovering at the -20F mark and wind gusting over 30 mph.
The fire was noticed shortly before 9:30 am, according to principal Robert Thom, who was near the janitor’s room at the time talking with head custodian Jerry Mickelsen.
“He said he smelled something,” Thom said, “so he walked into the furnace room and it was terribly smoky. He asked me to grab the fire extinguisher and he went in further.”
The school’s furnace room is located against the east wall of the building, with an attached ash room separated by its own door. “There were small but visible flames coming through that door,” said Thom, adding that when Mickelsen saw those, he asked Thom to call the Kenmare Fire Department.
According to fire chief Doug Skjordal, about 10 firefighters and three trucks responded to the scene within minutes of the call. “When we heard it was on the east side of the building, we knew right away it had to do with that coal furnace,” he said.
Thom said the ashes are augured from the furnace into the ash room, but the chute that empties into the ash cart had come disconnected from the ceiling somehow. “So the ashes were sort of free-falling in there,” he explained, “instead of being contained in the cart.”
The ash room also contained wooden shelves built years ago along one wall. “Some of the ashes worked their way over there and that’s what started on fire,” said Thom.
Skjordal said the smoke was thick enough that the firefighters used the infrared camera to locate the actual flames. “We pulled out the wooden shelving and cleaned that up,” he said.
An old window in the ash room had been replaced with a sheet of plywood that also started burning, and Skjordal said the firefighters removed that as well.
“Otherwise, it’s just a cement block room,” Thom said. “Everything’s been put back in place.”
Mickelsen shut the furnace down for about an hour, and most of the smoke was contained to the back entry area. “It aired out pretty quickly,” Thom said.
The chute was reattached with stronger welds, and Cameron Bartuska of Gravesen Electric arrived during the afternoon to repair some electrical wire damaged by the high heat. Thom attributed the incident to the faulty chute attachment to the ceiling. “I don’t think it’s something we can blame on the furnace,” he said.
The Kenmare School Board has been reviewing options to replace the high school’s coal boiler with an electric boiler.
Kids and teachers
evacuate to bus barn
School administrators directed everyone to evacuate the building shortly after the flames were discovered. “[Superintendent] Mueller made the decision and announced that students and staff should immediately get their coats and go to the bus barn,” said Thom.
According to Thom, the fire alarms were not activated because students and teachers have been drilled in exiting the building and waiting outdoors when those alarms sound. Given the day’s extreme weather conditions, Thom and Mueller wanted everyone to wait in the heated bus barn instead.
“The school was evacuated in an amazingly short period of time,” Thom said. “We know the bus barn wasn’t that far from where the fire occurred, but I still think it was the best decision, given the conditions.”
He said the fire department worked about 20 minutes before reporting the building was safe again. Students and staff returned to the classrooms, and the day proceeded on a normal schedule.
“You don’t like to have things like that happen,” said Thom, “but I thought everyone responded well and it went very smoothly. There were no further problems during the day.”
Mueller used the school’s phone message system to contact all the parents’ phone numbers with news about the fire, the evacuation, and the safe return to classes.
“He gave a brief explanation of what happened,” Thom said, then laughed. “Which didn’t cut back on all the phone calls that came in, although it helped. Word was out we had burnt to the ground.”
Skjordal noted the Kenmare firefighters remained on the scene for nearly an hour.
Dangerous conditions . . . Thursday morning's temperature was
recorded at 20 below zero at the time the high school was
evacuated, but northwest winds gusting over 30 mph dropped the
wind chill into the -50F range. The situation caused school
administrators to send students and staff to the bus barn for safety.