Whitefield Elementary School Principal Joshua McNaughton held up a 250 watt metal alloy bulb and a piece of melted wire, taken from a light fixture in the Whitefield Elementary School gymnasium at the RSU 12 Board of Directors meeting Thursday, April 9.
“It’s a miracle the whole place didn’t burn down,” he said. Installation issues caused every light fixture in the gymnasium to overheat, McNaughton said. The electrical wiring, which ran directly over the light fixtures, exacerbated the fire hazard, McNaughton said.
After the second fire due to a light fixture in the school’s gym in a little over a year, every fixture was removed and examined, McNaughton said. Burn marks were found in the insulation around every light fixture. Electrical wiring, which ran above each light fixture, was melted in places.
McNaughton showed the school board what he said was a picture of the ceiling above a light fixture unconnected to the fire. The picture showed an enormous burn mark.
On March 27 at approximately 10 a.m., students were evacuated from Whitefield Elementary School after a fire broke out in the school’s gym.
The State Fire Marshal’s Office determined an overheated light fixture melted the diffuser shielding the light and dripped onto the floor igniting the floor. A little over one year previous, on March 10, 2014, a light fixture in Whitefield Elementary School’s gym caught fire, melted the plastic diffuser, and ignited the floor.
The State Fire Marshal’s Office identified some needed work to bring Whitefield Elementary School up to code following the 2014 fire. The “mitigation list” did not include replacing the light fixtures in the gym.
Following the most recent fire, the fire marshal’s office brought in two electrical examiners from the state’s Electricians’ Examining Board. The school’s insurance company, Colonial Adjustment Inc., brought in a private investigator and an electrical engineer.
When the light fixture was removed from the ceiling, school administration, the fire marshal’s office, the state electrical examiners, and the insurance company’s private investigator and electrical engineer worked together to assess the situation, McNaughton said.
The group determined the light fixtures and the insulation were installed too closely together. Instructions for the light fixtures, manufactured by Lumark Lighting, called for 11 inches of clearance between the fixture and insulation.
The light fixtures were found to be flush with the insulation, McNaughton said. The fixture was physically touching the “vapor barrier”, or layer of plastic at the bottom of the insulation in the ceiling, McNaughton said.
Upon further examination, it was discovered electrical wiring in the gym ran over the light fixtures in the ceiling as well.
“It was essentially a big oven,” McNaughton said to the school board. Once partially melted wires were discovered above light fixtures unconnected to the fire, the school made the decision to remain closed until all the light fixtures in the gym’s ceiling were removed.
The electrical system in the gymnasium will also be rewired, McNaughton said.
“It was a no-brainer,” McNaughton said. “We were not going to reopen until those light fixtures were gone.”
According to McNaughton, the light fixtures were installed when the addition to Whitefield Elementary School was built in 1987-88. The general contractor for the project was Beaver Corporation out of Malden, Mass., McNaughton said.
It is unclear from the financial records if Beaver Corporation installed the light fixtures and did the electrical work, or hired subcontractors, McNaughton said. According to McNaughton, the Beaver Corporation went out of business and the statute of limitations, the time period claims can be brought against a company, has expired.
With the light fixtures removed from the gymnasium, the electrical system set to be rewired, and all inspections completed, Whitefield Elementary School will be open for classes Monday, April 13. The gymnasium will remain closed for another three to four weeks, McNaughton said.
Over April vacation, scheduled to begin April 20, every light fixture in Whitefield Elementary School will be replaced, McNaughton said. As the light fixtures are removed the electrical wiring will be inspected, McNaughton said.
Some work on the “mitigation list” will also be completed, McNaughton said. Over April break, new windows will be installed in the kindergarten through fourth grade wing. Duct work in the kitchen is currently in the design phase and must be signed off on by the fire marshal’s office before it is completed, McNaughton said.
Automatic holds, or holds that release when the fire alarm goes off, will be added to the three sets of hallway doors leading up to the gymnasium, McNaughton said. The school is waiting to hear from the fire marshal’s office to determine if a brand new set of doors is needed or if automatic holds can be added to the current doors.
The cost of the 2014 fire at Whitefield Elementary School was approximately $100,000, McNaughton said. He estimated the cost of recovery from the most recent fire will be roughly equivalent.
The Energy Conservation Performance Contract RSU 12 recently signed with Siemens Industry Inc. will cover the cost of replacing the light fixtures and some of the fire mitigation work done at Whitefield Elementary School, McNaughton said. RSU 12 will absorb the cost of rewiring the electrical system in the gymnasium.
Insurance will cover much of the damage, McNaughton said. According to RSU 12 Superintendent Howard Tuttle, recovery from the fire will not effect the 2015-2016 budget.
Both McNaughton and Tuttle hailed staff and students at Whitefield Elementary School for their quick evacuation of the building.
“Those lights have been that way for 25 years,” Tuttle said. “We’re very fortunate that no one got hurt. It’s a miracle there wasn’t a lot more damage.”