More than 50 years after he graduated from the only high school in the Okanagan community of Oliver, long-time fire chief Richard Simmons couldn't help but think back to those carefree days as he watched his beloved alma mater go up in flames.
"We can probably build a new school. It'll never be the same," he said.
Fire swept through much of Southern Okanagan Secondary School on Monday, forcing district officials to cancel classes for at least a week. The district said it's considering several options for the 500 students, including busing some of them to nearby Osoyoos each morning.
The cause of the fire is not known. The school had been undergoing a $29-million renovation, and while the new gymnasium, science laboratory and cafeteria were saved, the south and east wings were destroyed, as was the cherished and historic auditorium.
Mr. Simmons became chief in 1975 and retired a decade ago. He answered phones at the Oliver fire hall as 30 firefighters battled the flames. He said when crews arrived at the scene around 2 a.m., parts of the school were "burning like crazy" and "windows were blowing." Flames shot through the roof and dark smoke coated the surrounding area.
Mr. Simmons said the loss of the Frank Venables Auditorium hits particularly hard.
"A lot of community events have happened there over the years," he said. "Even some funerals have been held there. It holds special memories for people."
Oliver Mayor Pat Hampson echoed those sentiments, and said the fire will have a "huge impact" emotionally. "The school is an art-deco school. It was built in 1948, there's a huge emotional attachment to the school itself."
Jim Insley, assistant superintendent of the Okanagan Similkameen School District, said no decision on what to do with the students has been made. He said transporting some to Osoyoos is a possibility, although the district would prefer to keep them all together. The district is also considering bringing in several more portable teaching units.
Mr. Insley said no threats had been made against the school and it was unclear what started the fire.
RCMP Constable Jason Bayda said Mounties have been called in to investigate, as is customary with all fires. He said investigators haven't been able to sift through the scene because fire crews were dealing with hot spots for much of Monday.
The B.C. government pledged $27.5-million for renovations and the construction of an addition to Southern Okanagan Secondary School in March, 2009. That was raised to $29-million in February, 2010. The work was expected to continue into fall 2012.
Upon hearing news of the fire, several of the school's past and present students shared their sorrow on Twitter.
Said one current student: "We all wish for our school to burn down, but when it really happens it ain't so great."
Added a former student: "My old high school burned to the ground this morning. Quite a bit more upset by this than I [thought]I would be."