Fire probes continue

GWYNETH HYNDMAN AND ALEX FENSOME
Last updated 05:00 04/01/2013
James Hargest College
JOHN HAWKINS/Fairfax NZ
FIRE ATTACKED: Firefighters tackle the blaze on the roof of the James Hargest College senior campus block at 6am yesterday. Six classrooms were destroyed or damaged in a suspected arson attack.
James Hargest College
JOHN HAWKINS/Fairfax NZ
CHARRED REMAINS: Firefighters inspect the gutted James Hargest College senior campus classroom block after the arson.

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Police and fire services are continuing to investigate yesterday's blaze at James Hargest College as a suspected arson.

Invercargill Police detective Dougall Henderson said there were ''positive lines of enquiry'' following an appeal for help from the public to identify suspicious activity around the school early yesterday morning.

Fire investigator Mike Cahill said investigations were continuing into the source of the evidence that the fire had been deliberately lit, since it had been removed from the site.

The fire - which started at 5.45am yesterday - destroyed six classrooms undergoing a $1.5 million renovation in the school's C Block.

Mr Cahill confirmed yesterday afternoon the fire had been deliberately lit.

"There is no other explanation," he said. "We have found evidence to indicate it was deliberately lit."

Acting Fire Service area commander Julian Tohiariki said crews arrived about 5.50am to find the building fully ablaze.

"We had six [fire engines] here and 28 staff," he said.

"The challenge . . . was keeping it contained."

The lack of wind had made the task easier, but half the block had been gutted and the rest had been severely damaged by heat and smoke, Mr Tohiariki said.

Part of the roof had been removed, with water pooling beneath it.

Wiring and insulation melted, as did builders' tarpaulins and other materials.

A school car that was parked close to the block was also badly damaged by the heat.

Detective Dougall Henderson, of Invercargill, appealed for anyone who saw suspicious activity in the area from about 5am to contact police.

Deputy principal Al Pannett said teachers were upset about the fire.

"It is fairly devastating."

However, in the end only buildings had been lost and those could be replaced. No teaching resources or equipment were inside, he said.

The destruction of the block would cause disruption to the school.

It was being renovated for home economics and computing classes at a cost of $1.5 million.

Half the renovations were due to be finished by the start of term one and the rest within three months, Mr Pannett said.

It now looked as if part of the block would have to be demolished, he said.

Last year, students were bussed from the senior campus to the junior campus, at the other end of Layard St, for practical classes because of the renovation.

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Mr Pannett said being a large school made it easier to accommodate the loss, but it would cause difficulties.

Temporary buildings were not an option, and the school may have to look to the wider community to find classrooms and facilities until the block was rebuilt, he said.

He met with the Ministry of Education and the school's insurer yesterday to talk about what would be done.

"[We have] set wheels in motion to make sure the start of the school year happens . . . we are going to have to make do," Mr Pannett said.

"It will be three to four weeks of hard work."

Food and fabric head of department Annette McMillan said whoever lit the fire was thoughtless.

The loss of the classrooms was going to be disruptive and difficult, because the senior campus would have to rely on junior campus classrooms, but she was grateful no-one was hurt and no resources or work was lost.

"We were looking forward to the new block," she said. "We will get to enjoy it in the fullness of time."

Students and parents went to the school throughout yesterday to look at the damage.

Oliver Pearson, who will be in year 11 when school returns, said the renovations had already caused disruption.

"It already interfered with school," he said. "Now it's going to interfere [even more]."

He said he would be annoyed if it was an arson attack.

His mother, Julie Pearson, said the fire was terrible.

"Kids were looking forward to the new block."

- The Southland Times

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