Centennial High School fire 'intentionally set'

CHAMPAIGN – Authorities continue to investigate who set a fire that caused toxic smoke and an evacuation at Champaign Centennial High School.

The school reopened for classes today after dismissing early Monday afternoon.

Superintendent Arthur Culver said Monday night that someone set a book on fire and placed it on a plastic chair that also started to burn, producing heavy smoke. Culver said workers employed by Servpro of Champaign-Urbana spent the afternoon and evening cleaning the school.

The gym won't be ready for use today, but it will be tonight when Centennial hosts the state boys' basketball sectional tournament, he said.

"We're blessed no one was hurt," Culver said.

Champaign Deputy Fire Chief Tim Wild said this morning the fire was "intentionally set."

"Some books in a storage closet off the girls' locker room had been set on fire, and the fire spread to some chairs," he said. "Any time plastic burns, it causes heavy black smoke. They've got a lot of cleanup."

Firefighters were called to the school at 913 S. Crescent Drive about 12:30 p.m. Monday, according to Champaign Deputy Fire Chief Steve Clarkson.

The fire was contained to a storage area off the girls' locker room in the northeast part of the building, he said. Fire damage was minimal, and there were no injuries, he added.

"The fire wasn't large due to the quick action of the school maintenance staff," Clarkson said.

A custodian tried to put out the fire with a dry chemical extinguisher, according to fire officials. Champaign firefighters finished putting out the fire with a second dry chemical extinguisher.

However, due to the school's construction, smoke traveled throughout the building, according to Clarkson.

"The size of the building and numerous openings made it difficult to remove the smoke," he said.

School officials decided to cancel classes for the rest of the day.

About 1,400 students were evacuated when the alarm sounded Monday.

"When student safety is involved, we always try to take the safest route," said Beth Shepperd, assistant superintendent of the Champaign school district. "There was too much smoke. We evacuated the school and dismissed classes for the rest of the day."

Shepperd said in a prepared statement later Monday that air quality in the building had returned to normal.

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