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Fire at West Hall High cancels classes today

POSTED: December 19, 2008 5:00 a.m.
Tom Reed/The Times

Hall County firefighters look over the area where a fire broke out Thursday evening behind West Hall High School.

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A Thursday night fire destroyed a large outdoor electrical transformer at West Hall High School, where dozens of emergency workers responded and heavy black smoke could be seen rising into the air.

The school building was not damaged and no one was injured, but classes were canceled for today for lack of power in the building.

Hall County Fire Chief David Kimbrell said there appeared to be no structural damage to the school itself. The blaze was contained to an area just outside the school’s electrical room in a fenced-in area on the north side of the building where a massive pad-mounted transformer burned.

The fire apparently started shortly before 6 p.m., Hall County schools spokesman Gordon Higgins said. An employee with Cochran Brothers Electric said the fire broke out when power was restored to the building after electricians with the company had removed a damaged surge protector.

West Hall football coach Mike Newton called Assistant Principal Greg Williams shortly after 911 was called to report a fire at the school, Higgins said. There were no students on campus at the time.

Firefighters from four stations were called in to fight the blaze. A ladder truck from the city of Gainesville was requested but turned back when it became apparent the school building was not on fire, Kimbrell said.

Gallons of mineral oil within the 25-square-foot, six-foot tall transformer fed the blaze, which Kimbrell likened to a huge grease fire. Firefighters applied a heavy stream of water to the side of the building to prevent the flames from spreading while they waited for Jackson EMC workers to cut power to the transformer.

"Once the power was cut, it took about three minutes to get the fire out," Kimbrell said.

Kimbrell said ample space between the transformer and the building was a factor in the fire not spreading.

A loud explosion on a pole-mounted transformer where a Jackson EMC electrician was working sent a brief scare through emergency workers, but he was unharmed, Kimbrell said.

Kay Cochran, secretary for Cochran Brothers Electric and wife of the owner, said just before the fire broke out, the company’s employees had removed a lightning surge protector that had been damaged earlier in the day. Power to the school had been turned off by Jackson EMC while the two electricians removed the device, she said.

Cochran said the transformer caught fire when Jackson EMC restored power at the school. She said Cochran Brothers had been told by Jackson EMC that the surge protector had been damaged by lightning. She said Cochran Brothers electricians had not been working on the transformer; "only Jackson EMC works on transformers."

Higgins said the two electricians complained of minor smoke inhalation but declined medical treatment.

Higgins said Jackson EMC will bring a new transformer in today, and officials are hopeful to have power restored in time for classes to resume Monday.

Issues with the school’s electrical transformers and circuit breakers first arose at about 11 a.m. Thursday, when a capacitor inside the electrical room blew, spreading oil on electrical breakers and causing them to arc. There was no fire then, but students were evacuated to the gym as a precaution until firefighters could investigate and give an all-clear.

Repair work started at about 4 p.m. Thursday and the fire broke out some two hours later.


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