By Floyd Ingram
HOULKA – The Chickasaw County School Board met in emergency session Wednesday afternoon after a fire heavily damaged Houlka Attendance Center the week before classes were to start for the new school year.
The fire destroyed the portion of the school that housed fifth and sixth grades, the auditorium, an assistant principal’s office and a computer lab. No injuries were reported.
Superintendent Dr. Betsy Collums said the district has a preliminary emergency plan and she asked the board to invoke it.
“We will move classes around and I think we can find places to put students,” said Collums. “Our staff will find a way to teach we just need to find space to give them a classroom to teach in.”
Collums said at this point Houlka schools will hold their first day of class on Wednesday.
The Houlka Attendance Center is a historic building and was undergoing a renovation of its tall individually paned windows and a reworking of heat and electrical systems.
The board met with contractors Wednesday who apologized for the fire.
Subcontractor Steve Fowlkes said he was capping gas lines for contractor Sonny Sullivan when the fire began. Fowlkes said he was soldering copper pipe in the attic and the fire kindled in insulation. He said he called for a fire extinguisher but the fire moved quickly and they evacuated the building.
The state fire marshal was expected to be in Houlka today to determine the fire’s official cause.
Houlka Fire Chief Terry Short said he was spending Wednesday night in a fire truck to secure the site and to douse hot-spots to keep the fire from rekindling.
The school building was just under 14,000 square feet. It was built in 1938 and had tall ceilings, pine wood floors and an asphalt shingle roof.
Short said the fire was in one room on the west side of the building when he arrived in Houlka’s fire truck. He said the truck ran out of water and the building was fully involved in the space of 10 minutes. The fire was reported to Chickasaw County 911 at 1:11 p.m. with most firefighters not leaving the scene until after 4 p.m.
Units from Houston, Okolona, Algoma, Randolph, Beckham, Thorn and Troy-Woodland sent more than 16 pieces of equipment to the scene to fight the fire. Houlka police, Chickasaw County Sheriff’s deputies and the Mississippi Highway Patrol were called in to direct traffic and help with security.
Gary Shafer, project architect for the renovation work, told the board he was “involved when Baldwyn school burned and they lost 22 classrooms.
“I want to point out the district needs to get through the emotional loss and move on to what they can do next,” Shafer said. “Let’s face it, that building is gone and you are going to have to start thinking about what you are going to replace that loss.”
Shafer said the district needed to begin rounding up a list of inventory throughout the building.
The district also will be looking for damage to adjacent buildings that include the high school and ag center.