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Three-alarm fire causes $2.5M in damages to Mt. Whitney auto shop but welding shop remains intact

Three-alarm fire causes $2.5M in damages to Mt. Whitney auto shop but welding shop remains intact

By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN

VISALIA – When students arrived at Mt. Whitney High School on the morning of March 20, classes went on as normal, unless you are among those taking ag welding or ag mechanics classes.

Just 12 hours earlier, a three-alarm fire melted half of the metal agriculture shop building at the high school leaving the southern wall bowed and distorted with a lingering smell of smoke around the immediate area. Principal Rick Hamilton said students in those classes were reassigned to other buildings until the building is repaired and students can safely return to classes held there. As of press time, neither side of the building had power nor a nearby ag biology and science classroom and lab. Hamilton said those classes have are being handled out of other classrooms and the ag mechanics students were moved to an extra classroom. Hamilton said the school is still working to on some outdoor solutions to allow students to continue their hands-on work for class projects.

Principal Rick Hamilton discusses the damage after firefighters are able to contain the fire to just a single building. Photo by Reggie Ellis.

Principal Rick Hamilton discusses the damage after firefighters are able to contain the fire to just a single building. Photo by Reggie Ellis.

“The students were obviously disappointed a shocked but they were able to move on,” Hamilton said. “They have been real troopers.”

Investigators had yet to determine a cause of the fire as of press time but they were certain it started in the ag mechanics portion of the building. Battalion Chief Darrin Hughes with the Visalia Fire Department said the last students left campus at about 3:30 p.m. and the last maintenance employee left around 5 p.m., two hours before the fire alarm went off.

“That employee said there was nothing out of the ordinary when they left campus,” Hughes said.

The fire alarm began echoing through the school and surrounding neighborhood at 6:58 p.m. on Monday, March 19. The first VFD engine arrived within five minutes but the flames were already burning through the roof. Upon arrival they called for back up. In all 40 firefighters, eight engines and two ladder trucks responded to the fire before it was under control at about 8 p.m., including two units from the Tulare County Fire Department and one unit from the Tulare City and Farmersville fire departments.

Hughes said the ladder trucks began dousing the metal, saw-tooth shaped roof of the building from above the northern wall while engines pulled up to the southern wall and blasted water from the ground. Firefighters were unable to enter the building due to the potential for the roof to collapse. When the buckled metal roof did collapse under the weight of the water, firefighters were able to concentrate on the source of the fire from both ends.

Principal Hamilton said most of the $2.5 million in damage to the 9,000-square foot building was contained to the auto shop with some smoke and heat damage to the welding shop thanks to a concrete wall separating the two halves. The welding shop remains structural intact while the auto shop was a complete loss. Hamilton estimated that the shop was built in the 1960s.

More importantly, firefighters were able to avoid the fire spreading across a breezeway to a similar sized metal building and no one was injured. Crews worked through the night to extinguish hot spots and turned over the building to Visalia Unified School District at 7 a.m. on March 20, according to Hamilton.

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