Friday started out an ordinary day for the 1,556 students who attend the sprawling campus of Woodburn High School. Bracketed on the north and south by streets named after the Bulldog, the school mascot, and tucked into a corner of a massive mult-acre lot and numerous sports fields, the school includes several annexes and outbuildings.
About 20 minutes into second period, at 9:20 a.m., Jesus Rodriguez recalled, the sound of a fire alarm pealed through the hallways: “I thought it was a drill,” Rodriquez said.
Many students and teachers thought the same thing, but it quickly became clear the school was on fire, and the fire was growing, eventually leading to a second, third and finally, a fourth alarm, bringing in firefighters from at least a dozen additional fire agencies. The brunt of the firefighting efforts were conducted from massive snorkel hoses on 100-foot plus ladders.
“I was in world literature class, discussing a book we were reading,” said Adrian Mendoza. “At first I thought it was a drill, then I realized something was happening. I started seeing black smoke going up and I started getting very concerned.”
Within minutes after the fire started, school administrators said, everyone was safely evacuated from the building; students and 80 faculty members streaming in long lines into open fields and parking lots. Later they were assembled at a nearby medical center. No one was injured during the incident, officials said.
Classes were canceled for the day, and the school will be closed all next week, district officials said.
“We notified parents at first that there was a fire, and then an update to let them know they (the students) were at a safe location,” said Margarita Roberts, a spokeswoman for the Woodburn School District. “There is speculation that the fire started in some unused parts of the building that used to house the wood and metal shops.”
Roberts said the school was built in the 1980s and remodeled in 1995. The school’s sprinker system went off when the fire started, she said.
Shortly before noon, firefighters had knocked down the worst of the fire and had moved inside the burned portion of the building to perform mop-up.
In all, at least 12 fire agencies and as many as 60 firefighters responded to help fight the fire, said Lt. Darin Unrein of the Woodburn Fire District, including firefighters from Silverton, Aurora, Canby, Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue, Mount Angel, Marion County Fire District, Salem and others.
Unrein said firefighters continued to mop-up the blaze throughout the afternoon, but would have to wait until embers cooled before investigators could get in and try and find the cause. That effort required backhoes and trackhoes to remove debris, and the portions of the collapsed roof. Unrein confirmed that the fire started in the wood and metal shops at the school.
Sgt. Nick Wilson, a spokesman for the Woodburn Police Department, said officials had a plan in place to deal with such an emergency and that plan worked well Friday morning. Officials searched the school after the evacuations to make sure everyone was out.
As news choppers hovered overhead, students stood in the bright sunshine, waiting for a ride home, or looking for friends to walk home or hang out with.
Stuart Foster, faculty member, said the evacuation was like a normal fire drill, which the school has once a month.
“It was not chaotic,” Foster said. “Students saw smoke beginning to plume and they were shocked.”
Foster said some students clapped because a meant a day off from school, but others were upset because they feared losing art work and other belongings in the blaze. He said at first it appered the fire would spread throughout the school.
“I run a student store that sells drinks and food to raise money for a school club,” Foster said. “It’s right across the hall from the room where the fire started. That’s probably all gone.”