SOSS up in smoke

South Okanagan Secondary School in Oliver was almost a total loss after a fire early Monday morning. Fire officials say about 70 per cent of the school is gone. - photo submitted by Michael Nyikos
South Okanagan Secondary School in Oliver was almost a total loss after a fire early Monday morning. Fire officials say about 70 per cent of the school is gone.
— image credit: photo submitted by Michael Nyikos

The community of Oliver is trying to make sense of a blaze that knocked down the heart of their community — the South Okanagan Secondary School.

Oliver Mayor Pat Hampson spent three hours at the scene of the fire early Monday morning feeling the radiant heat from the school as flames lit up the early morning sky.

“This is a tragedy. It’s a huge loss for the community, both emotional and dollar-wise. The school has been there since 1948. Hundreds of people in this community walked through those hallways and the Frank Venables Auditorium was so dear to everybody’s heart,” said a weary Hampson. “I imagine the town will come together as we usually do and work our way through it.”

Firefighters were called to the fire at the school around 2 a.m. Monday morning, finally getting a hold on the blaze around 8 a.m.

“It’s really heartbreaking, especially with the auditorium because that has been a landmark in Oliver,” said Spencer Tribbick, communications officer for the Oliver fire department who was a graduate of SOSS. “The auditorium was more than just the school, there was community productions held there. Now it is completely levelled. It’s really hard to see.”

Greg Smith who lives just a couple blocks away recalled waking up about 2:30 a.m. after hearing a loud noise.

What he saw will be forever ingrained in his memory.

“All you could see was just a huge wall of flame going hundreds of feet up in the air,” said Smith later Monday morning, as he watched firefighters dousing some hot spots among the smoldering rubble. “At first we were really worried about debris falling, fortunately there wasn’t any wind and it was just going straight up.” And like many others in the small community the facility had a very special place in his heart.

“Until last year when I retired I had taught at the school — with the exception of four years when I worked for the Ministry of Education — since 1989,” said Smith. “This is very sad and especially so for the kids who were so excited about the new school. I had some students stop in and see me the other day and it was just so nice to see kids excited about school.”

The former social studies teacher worries now about what will happen to the nearly 500 students who he estimates will be without permanent education facilities for at least the next three years.

“And they won’t be the only ones, this is going to impact a lot of people,” he said.

The Mills family — Dave, Tawnya and  their son Colton, who also live nearby — woke up about the same time when Tawnya’s mother burst into their home yelling the school was on fire.

“From our house you could just see huge tufts of smoke and flames coming out from the north side and then we came around the corner and it was just fully engulfed in flames,” said Tawnya. “You could just feel the heat and the flames were shooting straight up. We stayed for about an hour and then went home to get some sleep and I woke up and kind of wanted to see what the result was of what I had watched last night.”

Colton had just begun attending Grade 8 at the school.

“I really think the firemen did the best that they could to save it but the flames were just too much, it was done,” said Tawnya.

RCMP investigators have not yet determined if the fire that displaced over 500 students was arson. Sgt. Ken Harrington said at this point there is no indication as to the cause of the fire, however all fires of this nature are treated as suspicious in the first instance in order to preserve potential evidence and garner information from all available witnesses.

“They are going through every scrap they can see. That process could take a day, or it could take three. It depends on how quickly they can get through all the rubble,” said Tribbick.

While a large portion of the school had just undergone $30 million in renovations, firefighters could not contain the blaze to save it all. Tribbick said about 70 per cent of the main part of the school is gone, while some outbuildings like the music room and portables weren’t touched.

Oliver Fire Chief Dan Skaros said the new gym, northwest gym and most of the new cafeteria was saved while the library was a complete loss. Backup firefighters and trucks came from Okanagan Falls and Osoyoos to assist the Oliver fire department, putting 25 to 30 firefighters on the scene.

“The older part of the building was a tough one for us because it is a really weird design and the six-foot crawl spaces on top made it a hassle to get in there and get out,” said Skaros.

Renovations to the school have been underway for three years, with this being the first time students were going to be able to use the 14 new classrooms, special education and counselling rooms, food and textile labs, a graphic arts room, a science lab, art room as well as a new general office, washrooms and a multi-purpose room.

“We are just making sense of it all. It’s pretty devastating,” said School District 53 superintendant Bev Young. “We are looking at coming up with a plan to relocate students and seeing what parts of the school might be accessible down the road. We want to look at all our options and get a handle on areas that are not damaged and what access we would have to them in the coming weeks.”

Firefighters said water has been flowing through the building since yesterday morning and repairs will be necessary for many of the areas that did make it through the fire, including the new gym.

The Ministry of Education has announced it is committed to ensuring students and staff at SOSS have temporary school accommodation as soon as possible. School District 53 said that might be as early as Monday.

An adjuster has been appointed to the case and will make recommendations to the Ministry of Education on the specifics of loss replacement.

Once the loss is evaluated, the Ministry of Education will provide for replacement of the school through what is called an emergent capital project, which will include costs for bussing and temporary school accommodation of students and staff.

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