POCATELLO — A fire that destroyed Highland High’s band and choir rooms, cafeteria, gym, weight room, and locker rooms last week was caused by electrical issues in the cafeteria, according to Ryan O’Hearn, chief of the Pocatello Fire Department.
“The fire was definitively ruled as accidental in nature,” O’Hearn said.
In the wake of the red-hot blaze that at times looked apocalyptic, school officials are already making plans to rebuild (a long-term project) and support student learning in the five weeks before summer break.
And they’re reflecting on a wild Friday when they watched part of their school become ashes, and mourned the memories and history that those spaces carried.
“It was a rollercoaster of a tragedy,” Brad Wallace, principal at Highland High, said at a press conference Monday.
But Friday’s low was followed by a high on Saturday — Highland’s prom, which Idaho State University President Kevin Satterlee offered to host on campus when the fire consumed the planned venue.
In a show of resilience, a record number of students attended the dance, Wallace said.
“(Students) were optimistic and a lot of us are in education because of the energy they feed us,” Wallace said. “Their confidence in us was humbling.”
Students knew that administrators and staff would figure out next steps, and also expressed worry and concern for Wallace and other adults.
“That’s motivating. It’s inspiring, it’s humbling, it’s all those things,” Wallace said. “Our kids are resilient and strong.”
Pandemic prepared the school to better respond to crisis
School was canceled Friday and Monday for Highland students, but will resume Tuesday with remote learning, which will continue through at least Friday.
In some ways, the pandemic has prepared the school district to better respond to crises like the fire. For example, all district students now have their own laptops (a change that came about in 2020), and it’s not the first time teachers and students have faced a sudden transition from in-person to remote learning.
But, the pandemic also taught another important lesson: “We certainly know from COVID times that virtual learning, remote learning, hybrid learning … it’s not the best for us and for our kids,” Douglas Howell, superintendent of Pocatello-Chubbuck School District, said.
So district officials are working on creating more opportunities for students to learn in person, and will reschedule and relocate athletic and social activities as needed to make sure those extracurriculars are still available.
One option Howell said they are exploring is using Portneuf Valley Technical Education and Career Campus, a new building the school district purchased to house its career-technical programs, for some classes.
There are five existing classrooms there that could serve students. The building, formerly a call center, otherwise has an open floor plan. However, it’s possible that multiple classes could be held there since the acoustics are well-controlled.
And Highland’s administrative team will be relocating to PV-TEC right away.
Idaho State has also offered its classrooms, but those spaces wouldn’t be available until after the college’s graduation ceremonies on May 8.
Then there’s the question of logistics — if another location for classes is determined, providing busing will be another complication.
But, obstacles aside, Howell said he is committed to “(creating) those opportunities for interaction” for students.
“Our overarching goal is to proceed with learning and with social and extracurricular activities as best we can to not disrupt educational experiences for our kids.”
Food services will also resume this week, and distribution will be based at PV-TEC.
From the ashes: Rebuilding will be a long-term process
Videos of school walls crumbling amid a burning red backdrop circulated on social media last week as community members mourned the school they loved burning down.
But, thanks to efforts from first responders, a sprinkler system in one hallway, and automatically-closing fire doors, the majority of the school was saved.
Still, common spaces like the gym and the cafeteria are now gone.
“It is certainly something tragic and very devastating,” Howell said. “And yet we will look forward to rebuilding and for even better things to come, continuing that tradition, that heritage at Highland High School.”
But that rebuild “could be a very long process” that will likely take one or two years to complete, Howell said.
“This is going to be a monumental task, it will require patience and understanding from our community,” Howell said. “But I know that the ‘Ram Fam’ and everyone else in the greater Pocatello/Chubbuck area will be there all the way through this experience.”
Crews are already in place at Highland testing for mold, asbestos, and lead, and the electrical and plumbing systems are being evaluated.
“This is going to be a marathon, not a sprint,” Jonathan Balls, the director of business operations for the school district, said.
As the district’s insurance company processes the claims, it’s still unclear how much of the damage will be covered. But at this time, there is no need for donations.
Not all was lost: Memorabilia, classrooms, and pets were saved
Those familiar with Highland High know about its memorabilia hallway.
Lined with trophies and historical photos of standout athletes from decades past, the walls told a story of a school steeped in athletic championships. Students could walk through and point out family members or friends honored and frozen in time as part of Highland’s legacy.
“It’s admired by many and a great place for alumni to come in and reexperience and remember their accomplishments that began when they were in high school,” Wallace said. “The fire threatened a lot of that and our firemen braved the way and went through the hall and we think they saved up to 90 percent of those pictures that were hanging.”
The majority of the school’s classrooms were salvaged as well, along with some class pets and plants.
District officials extended their gratitude and appreciation for the firefighters and others who were able to protect most of the school, and Idahoans near and far for the outpouring of support.
And they highlighted the resilience of staff, students, and the community — especially in the past few years marked by the pandemic and now, a fire.
“Public education is always a serious business,” Courtney Fisher, the district’s spokesperson, said. “There is never any shortage of challenges that our administration faces, that our teachers face, and that our school administrators face.”
But a sense of unity is making a difference.
“What I’ve seen since Friday is our community, our faculty, our district administration banding together to address this crisis,” Fisher said. “What will continue to be revealed through taking care of our staff and taking care of our learners is truly the heart of education.”