A fire broke out at Hornby Island Community School overnight, destroying the gym and office area.
Hornby Island fire chief Doug Chinnery said at 2:48 a.m. Sunday, the fire department got word of alarm activations at the school.
When the duty officer arrived on scene minutes later, the front of the building was fully involved and the fire was beginning to spread to the inside.
Twelve minutes later, the first fire truck arrived and crews began attacking the blaze, cooling down the outside so they could get to work on the harder to reach flames on the inside.
“It was a tricky fire because it had gotten up above the ceiling and was in the space above the ceiling but below the roof,” said Chinnery. “It’s really hard to get water onto that so we ended up… sending a crew up onto the roof to cut a hole along the ridge of the roof and try and get some water down [onto the fire].”
Chinnery said the fire doors were extremely effective, blocking the fire’s path to the back two-thirds of the building. However, the front entryway, bathrooms, mechanical room, electrical room and staff room were destroyed.
“The back two-thirds of the building suffered pretty serious smoke damage, but almost no water or fire damage,” he said, adding that the extent of the smoke damage could make for a long remedial process.
Due to the size of the fire, crews knew early on that it was too big for them to handle alone and called for mutual aid from the Denman Island Fire Department. BC Ferry workers started up the ferry early to bring seven firefighters and a fire truck from Denman to Hornby.
“Just because of the logistics of ferry travel, we don’t often use those mutual aid agreements here on Hornby and Denman, but I was very glad to have it today,” said Chinnery.
To fully extinguish the fire, crews enlisted the help of a local man who used his excavator to pull the roof on top of the remaining flames.
It took approximately nine hours to put out the fire. The cause is still under investigation.
Word about the fire spread quickly across the Island, and Chinnery said there was an amazing outpouring of support from the community.
He said residents were stopping by the fire hall all morning with food, and the Co-op opened up early so that crews could get some breakfast.
“Heartbreaking and heartwarming all in the same day.”
Director of instruction in health and safety with Comox Valley Schools, Paul Berry, said the school district hopes to keep these students on Hornby Island.
“The fire to the school and the amount of damage is going to be extremely traumatic to the school, community and staff who see this as very much a centre of their community,” he said.
“Our plan is to do everything we can do to ensure continuity of an education to those students on Hornby Island. What that’s going to look like - we’ll know more in the days and weeks ahead as the investigation is undertaken and as we meet with the community to look at the possibilities to keep the kids on Hornby for school.”
Berry added the start of school may be delayed a couple days, but they hope to give the students as normal a start-up as possible.
In a statement, Comox Valley Schools said school district staff were out on the Island Sunday morning to look at the damage. Any new information about the start of school will be posted on the district and school websites.
“The board of education is shocked and saddened that one week prior to the start of the new school year at the news of a devastating fire that has damaged the Hornby Island Community School, a rural island school that not only serves the many students and families of Hornby Island but the entire community,” said board chair Janice Caton.