Lithium battery is likely cause of Lakota school fire

An extension cord under a pile of items may have also contributed, officials said.

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

A fire at Hopewell Junior School in West Chester Twp. on labor Day was likely started by a battery, officials said.

West Chester Twp. Fire Chief Rick Prinz said it appears the fire that ripped through part of the 50-year-old school over the Labor Day weekend was caused by a lithium battery charging in the coaches room.

“We believe that the fire started as a result of an extension cord that was coiled up and they had a bunch of easy-up tents, laundry basket full of jerseys and helmets and stuff on top of that extension cord,” Prinz said. “The cord overheated but I think what is more suspect, what we’re leaning on and pointing our finger at is a lithium ion battery that was being charged on that same cord.”

Prinz said these batteries “are a huge problem for the fire service right now” because people buy replacements from overseas, after market and they aren’t necessarily built to the optimum specifications and they can get damaged, “they are a bad fire problem.”

“People need to understand if you’re charging a lithium battery in your house for your power drills, your cell phones, do it while you’re awake,” Prinz said. “Because they’re prone to catch on fire.”

The other problem is there is no sprinkler system in the school so it took some time before the fire was detected in the vacant concrete block building. Prinz said in 1973 sprinklers were not required and while Lakota has done some updates to the building through the years, since the upgrades haven’t constituted more than 50% of the building, sprinkler installation wasn’t required.

“This would have been a different story today if that building would have had sprinklers in it,” he said. “That would would have been extinguished, we would have received the alarm and the damage would have much, much less.”

He said the damage to the building and contents is estimated at $1.2 million — $600,000 each for the building and contents. He said they had “water on fire” just after 9 a.m. on Sept. 4 and it was put out in about 17 minutes. Fire departments from ten other jurisdictions responded to the two-alarm fire, but they didn’t need everyone to do the job.

Because of the fire about 500 students and 30 to 40 teachers were displaced.

The West Chester Nazarene Church welcomed them to hold classes there and they started school in their temporary space on Tuesday. Pastor Alex Mahaffey said, “We have the space and we’ve always said it’s not ours, we want to make it available to the community as much as we can.”

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