A fast-moving fire swept through a dormitory at an exclusive Ojai boarding school Wednesday morning, causing an estimated $550,000 in damage and destroying the belongings of 28 students from countries around the world.
The blaze destroyed the 4,500-square-foot building, one of four dorms on the Happy Valley School’s 500-acre campus in the upper Ojai Valley, causing $450,000 in damage to the structure and another $100,000 to the contents, county fire officials said.
The fire, which sent up plumes of black smoke that could be seen six miles away in downtown Ojai, started in one of the rooms about 7:30 a.m. and rapidly spread to the walls and ceiling after a student was unable to put it out with a fire extinguisher, said Peter Cronk, Ventura County Fire Department investigator.
About 70 firefighters from six engine companies fought the blaze for an hour before it was declared under control at 8:45 a.m., said Ventura County Fire Department spokesman Mike Lindbery.
Two firefighters suffered minor injuries.
Firefighters kept the inferno from spreading to the surrounding hills, covered with dry grass and sagebrush, but it scorched six eucalyptus trees behind the dorm.
The one-story structure, built on a hillside with a large basement and exterior stairs, was one of the oldest buildings on campus and did not have fire sprinklers.
But a smoke detector alarm was in each room, officials said.
Many of the 28 dorm residents, all high school students between the ages of 13 and 18, were at breakfast when the fire erupted, school officials said.
But some students were still in the shower, doing chores or preparing for the morning assembly, said Dennis Rice, the school’s director since 1980.
“This is a difficult moment. But the important thing is that nobody got hurt,” Rice told the assembled students, some still in bathrobes and clutching their shoes, as they gathered to receive room assignments for the night in other dorms or private homes.
Rice said he was putting up 10 students in his own home on campus.
Alan Fu, an 18-year-old student from Taiwan, said the fire was limited to a corner of the room when he walked by it and noticed it had filled with smoke.
“I took a chair and broke a window to let out the smoke and then I went and got everybody out,” Fu said. “I didn’t think it was any big deal at first, but I was surprised at how very, very fast it spread.”
Fu said several boys were taking showers while others were finishing grooming. “I yelled at them to get out, but they thought it was a joke. They just kept blow-drying their hair,” he said.
Ingrid Berger, 14, of Barstow was near tears while she comforted a crying Mandy Ross, 15, who was in her bathrobe and clutching a pet mouse after the fire. “I brought everything I had from home,” Ingrid said.
Other students just shook their heads and didn’t want to talk about their losses.
Some had lived there several years between visits home to a dozen different countries.
Stanislav Mamonov, 16, arrived Jan. 4 on a scholarship from the Soviet Union and probably lost all his possessions, a school official said.
The students are not allowed to have television sets in their rooms but virtually all had personal computers that were lost in the blaze, along with their clothes and other belongings, Rice said.
Within an hour of the fire, offers of dorm space, cots and blankets poured in from other Ojai private schools and the Ojai Valley Chapter of the American Red Cross, Rice said.
“There’s been a lot of community support,” said Sandy Bowers, the school’s bookkeeper.
“We were insured so we should be able to rebuild,” Rice said. “The immediate thing is to take care of the emotional needs of the students and to notify their parents they are OK.”
The entire student body recently walked through two fire and earthquake drills shortly before their winter break began in late December, so it was still fresh in their minds, Rice said.
“We have a different drill for day and night and they did exactly what they were supposed to do, they went to the soccer field,” he said.
Fire officials praised the students, faculty and staff for the way they handled the evacuation.
“It was very orderly,” Lindbery said.