Fire Won't Halt First Day of Classes at Coronado Elementary in California

A fire that gutted a wing of Coronado Elementary School will not affect the start of instruction later this month, a school district official said Tuesday, though the ruined section may be demolished.

"The damage is pretty extensive. It's questionable whether the rooms are salvageable or not," said David Azcarraga, operations director for the West Contra Costa school district.

The blaze caused about $750,000 in damage and destroyed a pair of kindergarten classrooms, a staff room and a janitor's closet. It also caused smoke damage throughout the school.

"When the fire department got there, there were flames coming out of the top of the classrooms and licking into" a hallway, said interim Richmond Fire Chief Michael Banks.

Neighbors reported the blaze about 7:15 p.m. Monday. Fire investigators consider it suspicious but could not find its cause Tuesday, Banks said. The fire started in the staff room between the two classrooms.

"The place was pretty well-secured. There wasn't anything unusual in terms of natural gas leaks or anything like that," Banks said. "There were no outward signs of forced entry."

There were also no signs of electrical fire or accelerants, he added, and investigators will return to the campus, located 2001 Virginia Ave., later this week to continue their investigation.

Fire engines from Richmond and El Cerrito helped bring the blaze under control. One Richmond firefighter hurt his back while forcing open a classroom door with a sledgehammer, Banks said, but the injury is not serious.

The rooms were not used since the school year ended in June, though faculty members were soon expected to prepare their classrooms for the Aug. 23 start of the school year.

"That it happened only three weeks before the school year begins is disturbing," Banks said.

But Coronado will open as planned, Azcarraga said. Although the campus has little space, displaced kindergartners could meet temporarily in portable classrooms. "Thank goodness we have a little time," Azcarraga said.

The fire was the second large blaze to damage a district elementary school this year. In April, a suspicious fire that started in a plastic trash bin caused $250,000 in damage to the library at Castro Elementary in El Cerrito and destroyed the library's collection.

Castro inherited the library collection from Seaview Elementary School in San Pablo, which closed this year.

Reach Karl Fischer at 510-262-2728 or Shirley Dang at 510-262-2798

Donations for Coronado Elementary School can be sent to Mechanics Bank, 3170 Hilltop Mall Road, Richmond, CA, 94806. The account number is 139-624465.

Distributed by the Associated Press