The Weatherford fire marshal believes a homeless man’s activities in the basement of a vacant Weatherford ISD building likely led to a blaze late Wednesday night that destroyed the single-story structure.
Weatherford firefighters received a call of smoke in the area after 10 p.m. Wednesday and found heavy, thick, black smoke coming from the eaves of a single-story building in the 100 block of North Denton Street, officials said.
Emergency personnel shut down portions of surrounding streets, including North Denton, Line and Jameson as firefighters put out the fire and remaining hot spots until clearing the scene about 3:30 a.m.
Because of the age of the vacant structure and concern about the integrity of the roof, firefighters fought the fire defensively from the outside, Fire Chief Paul Rust said.
Though firefighters had a close call due to mechanical issues with a fire engine, no one was injured. In addition to Weatherford, Hudson Oaks, Willow Park, Central and Greenwood fire departments also responded.
Fire Marshal Bob Hopkins said he did not know the exact cause Thursday afternoon but does believe the fire originated in the basement of the school.
The building was originally constructed in 1923 as a two-room schoolhouse with a basement used for restrooms and had an addition in 1935, according to Hopkins.
A homeless man was staying there and found his way into the basement area, Hopkins said.
“He was not there when fire started, according to him,” Hopkins said, adding that the fire didn’t just start itself.
Because of the amount of debris in the basement and the safety issues presented to reach the area, Hopkins said they may not ever know the exact cause of the fire but said it’s most likely due to “user error.”
“I have a real concern with our homeless population that seems to be slowly growing and where they camp out,” Hopkins said.
A couple of years ago, Hopkins said, they dealt with a fire in an empty house that someone had been staying in.
Though the homeless use vacant structures for shelter, particularly in the winter, the concern is that some ways used to keep warm or cook food can be dangerous and present a fire hazard, according to Hopkins.
The building had been turned back over to the district by Thursday afternoon, which planned to fence the remaining structure this week, Hopkins said.
The building was used in several capacities over the decades, district spokesman Derik Moore said, including as a district administrative building.
During the last years of use - at least 8 and a half years ago - it provided classroom space for the district’s disciplinary alternative program, as well as a program for those considered to be at risk for dropping out of high school prior to graduation, according to Moore.
When it was built, during a time the city was divided into wards, the building was originally known as the Fifth Ward School, Hopkins said.
There was nothing of value reported to be in the building at the time of the fire.
The building was boarded up, and the proper “No Trespassing” signs were displayed, according to district officials.
The school district had been planning on tearing down and removing the WISD building, Hopkins said.
It was the second vacant building to burn in the neighborhood in the last year.
Last December a vacant barn in the 800 block of Jameson Street, about a block away from the WISD building, burned to the ground in an evening fire.
Hopkins said the eight juveniles responsible were caught and two prosecuted for arson, while the remaining six were sent to fire safety classes.
Empty structures pose a big problem nationwide, Hopkins said. “Where we have empty structure, it becomes a real fire hazard.”
Hopkins said he attempts to immediately address empty structures that have become a fire hazard by contacting owners and giving them a 90 period to abate their situation.
“Sometimes, it’s just a matter of selling the property,” he said.
Some firefighters working the blaze had a close call when they lost pressure in a hydraulic line on a ladder engine, lowering the extended ladder onto live power lines.
A charge went back through the vehicle from the electrical wires, sending sparks flying everywhere from the outriggers where the truck was grounded, according to Hopkins.
However, the pump operator had reportedly momentarily stepped away and no one was injured.
Weatherford Electric was called to shut off the power, officials said.
The truck is a reserve unit that is not typically staffed daily but was taking the place of another truck that is having transmission repair completed, Rust said.
They recently spent a lot of money on the engine’s hydraulics, according to Rust.
Knowing that there was a possibility that the hydraulics were leaky, they also recently purchased items to address the issue but the parts had not arrived, Rust said.
The truck was still running at the scene and was successfully removed from the power lines and driven back to the station but it was unclear whether there was any damage.
Rust said they would not putting the aerial portion into use again until having the issue corrected.
The department will also have a third party inspect the truck, according to Rust.
The incident was a result of an aging fleet, the fire chief said.
The department’s engines, all purchased at the same time around 1999 or 2000 and all due to be replaced at the same time, are beyond the recommended period for daily use, according to Rust. After 10 years of “front-line” use, the trucks are typically rotated into reserve duty.
However, because of the slow economy in recent years, the city put off purchasing new engines, and they’ve been holding the line, Rust said.
Money was budgeted this year for a new engine, and they’ve placed the order, Rust said, adding that they expect to receive the new fire truck in seven to eight months.
The incident underscored that there is an element of risk to their job, Hopkins said. “I can’t express to people enough how dangerous fighting a fire is.”