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San Diego Elementry School Closed After Arson Fire

Aired 1/17/12 on KPBS News.

A University Heights primary school was closed today due to an overnight arson fire that caused an estimated $600,000 worth of property damage, authorities reported.

Students will likely return to Alice Birney Elementary tomorrow, one day after an arsonist set fire to several school buildings. But the fire’s impact will likely be felt for the rest of the school year.

The University Heights school in the 4300 block of Campus Avenue suffered damage in the cafeteria, auditorium and a room used by guidance counselors who spends time with kids struggling in their normal classes. The fire broke out just before midnight on Monday.

It took a contingent of 50 firefighters roughly 20 minutes to get the flames under control, Battalion Chief John Fischer said.

Investigators determined that someone had intentionally sparked the blaze by spreading around some type of flammable liquid and igniting it, SDFRD spokesman Maurice Luque told reporters.

There were no immediate indications that the crime was related to several other arson fires that damaged a church about a half-mile from the school in December, according to Luque. Early estimates placed damage at about $600,000.

Birney Principal Amanda Hammond-Williams said the auditorium will probably be closed for the rest of the year and students will be eating bag lunches under a tent in the playground until the kitchen can be reopened. But she said the fire also damaged program materials.

“A lot of kids' materials were lost. Both of our before and after school programs; all of the playground equipment that we house in that area for recess and for after school," she said. "A lot of arts and crafts materials. A lot of board games.”

Donations to the school can be made through the foundation.

A Facebook page run by the school’s PTA also says there will be a box outside the school tomorrow for material donations. Hammond-Williams says any other support should be coordinated through the University Heights Community Association.

Planning the logistics of how to rehouse the before- and after-school programs that operated in the damaged buildings was just part of what Principal Amanda Hammond-Williams has to figure out before reopening school. She was also considering what to tell students about the fire.

“They need to know that there was a fire and they will probably need to know that somebody bad set it," she said "And I think the message to give to them is: Things happen; bad things happen to us. And we have to figure out how to make it better, how to struggle through whatever it is we’re going through and make it better, and how to keep our spirits up and all work together.”

City News Service contributed to this tory

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