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Fire closes school three days

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River Falls, 54022

River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

Students returned to Hudson Middle School Tuesday morning after an unexpected five-day break resulting from a fire last week in a science lab.

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Classes for the school's 1,107 students were cancelled Thursday and Friday of last week, and again on Monday, to allow crews from a professional restoration company to clean up after the Wednesday night fire.

A school custodian discovered the fire at about 10:45 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 25, after smelling smoke coming from a science lab in the Camelot House complex of classrooms. The first-floor room is on the north side of the school library.

The fire damage was limited to a counter area in the classroom, but smoke from the blaze permeated much of the school. A water sprinkler came on in the lab, containing the fire, but also soaking the carpeting in the lab and neighboring rooms.

What school officials initially thought was a relatively minor fire turned out to be a major inconvenience.

Crews from Restoration Professionals, a Roseville, Minn., company, worked nearly nonstop from Thursday morning, Jan. 26, until Tuesday morning, Jan. 31, cleaning virtually every surface in the building.

Student lockers had to be moved and carpeting ripped out and replaced, along with damaged chairs, tables and desks. School district buildings and grounds employees worked with the private contractor on the cleanup.

"We've had 40 to 60 people in the building working continually most of the weekend," District Superintendent Mary Bowen-Eggebraaten said Monday.

The district got the go-ahead to reopen the middle school early Tuesday morning when test results from air samples taken on Monday showed the air was safe to breathe.

Bowen-Eggebraaten said she didn't know what the total cost associated with the fire and the cleanup of the damage would be.

The district's insurance with the state-run Local Government Property Insurance Fund will cover all but $5,000 of the restoration cost.

Dan Roeglin, investigator for the Hudson Fire Department, said the fire started in electrical equipment connected to a terrarium or aquarium that was on a counter in the science classroom. He said it appeared that maybe a power strip or a timer used to turn a lamp on and off malfunctioned.

A cage or two for small animals also occupied the counter in Mrs. Cynthia Landers' seventh-grade life science lab.

A guinea pig and a lizard died in the fire, but an iguana, a rabbit, a bird and aquarium fish survived.

Bowen-Eggebraaten kept parents apprised of developments through the school district's Web site, www.hudson.k12.wi.us, as well as letters sent home with students at the district's elementary schools.

In one letter, she described how the cleanup involved wiping the covers of every book in the library.

The contents of student lockers in affected areas were placed in plastic bags and parents were asked to come to the school to pick them up Monday night.

Bowen-Eggebraaten said school officials hadn't reached a decision as of Monday about whether students would be asked to make up the three missed days.

Restoration Professionals got the job of putting the school back in order because the company's president, Edward Strom of Houlton, was on the ball.

He told the Star-Observer that he heard a news broadcast about the fire at about 5 a.m. Wednesday and drove to the school to offer his services.

School officials were waiting for another clean-up company they had contacted to arrive. Strom answered some of their questions, and they gave him the job after waiting another 15 minutes for the company they had called to show up.

Strom said Restoration Professionals prides itself on having a crew on the scene within an hour of being called. The licensed, 50-employee company specializes in repairing fire and water damage.

Seven of the company's vehicles, plus a trailer, lined the drive to the middle school the morning after the fire.

"Obviously, this is an unfortunate situation ... but the good news is that no one was hurt," Bowen-Eggebraaten said the morning after the fire. "It's a day to be happy that all the systems worked well and the damage from the fire was minimized as a result of that. It's obviously a lot of work to clean up, but it's about property. Everyone is safe."

Hudson Fire Chief Jim Frye said the school's fire sprinkler system worked well. He noted that the middle school is the only building in the district with a sprinkler system.

Bowen-Eggebraaten was appreciative of all involved in the cleanup.

"I cannot say enough about the work and dedication of our facilities and grounds crew and Hudson Middle School staff to get the building ready for school to resume," she said in a Jan. 30 message on the district Web site. "Everyone has pitched in and worked together to get this accomplished."

Randy Hanson can be reached at rhanson@rivertowns.net.

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