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Update: Fire, explosion cause $1.5 million damage to new Superior school

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Superior firefighters come down from the roof at Cooper Elementary School in Superior on Monday afternoon after a section of fire reignited late this morning. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)2 / 3
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Damage is estimated at $1.5 million after a fire and explosion at the newly constructed Cooper Elementary School in Superior on Sunday night, and a flare-up in the building’s gymnasium roof on Monday morning.

No one was injured in the fire and explosion, which remain under investigation.

The new school, which is in its final few months of construction, had been slated to open in the fall; it’s located adjacent to the existing Cooper Elementary School, 1807 Missouri Ave.

The groundbreaking ceremony for the new school occurred almost exactly a year ago — April 12, 2017. It was set to replace the current, 1970s-era school starting this fall, with the old part of the school slated to be torn down after this school year.

Prior to the blaze, the construction had been ahead of schedule, according to Gary Niemi, director of buildings and grounds for the Superior school district.

The fire destroyed the boilers for the new school, which weren’t even hooked up yet. The gymnasium was damaged by smoke and there are new holes in the roof above it; the floor was laid and sanded, but hadn’t been finished.

“We know there’s a lot of significant damage to the building,” Niemi said.

How significant will determine what effect the fire will have on the construction timeline.

The new Cooper Elementary was approved by Superior voters in 2016 as part of a $92.5 million building referendum that also included renovation of Superior High School. The construction project is insured by both the district and project manager Kraus-Anderson Construction. Niemi said he’s not sure how all the pieces will be covered, but additional referendum money should not be needed.

The Superior Fire Department reported that firefighters were called to the school just after 10 p.m. Sunday.

“Upon arrival crews found heavy smoke coming from the newly constructed part of Cooper School,” the fire department reported in a news release. “Crews were starting to make an attack on the fire when an explosion occurred on the main floor. Crews were pulled back and accounted for.”

Battalion Chief Steve Edwards said the fire gave off a whistling sound, which indicated that some kind of pressurized gas line was involved. The fire department reported that crews found the gas main to the building, shut it off, and then continued battling the flames. It took about an hour to extinguish the fire, and crews remained on the scene until about 1:20 a.m.

As the cause of the fire was being investigated Monday morning, fire investigator Steve Miner saw smoke coming from the roof in the damaged area and called it in, according to Superior Fire Chief Steve Panger. Firefighters responded to the school just before 11 a.m. to knock down the hot spot, which was located in the insulation of the roof.

Cooper students were kept inside for recess Monday as a precaution, according to a post on the Superior school district Facebook page.

The hot spot was about the size of a vehicle when first discovered, according to Battalion Chief Scott Gordon, but it ended up growing in size as firefighters fought the fire in windy weather.

The Superior Police Department was on the scene when the fire crew arrived. Gordon said he was able to pinpoint the roof fire and position the engine as close as possible with the help of the police department’s drone.

Police officers also helped develop an evacuation plan with administrators at the current Cooper Elementary next door, just in case the fire got out of control.

“Between the police department, fire department and school district, we all worked well together,” Gordon said.

The engine crew cleared the construction site at about 1:45 p.m. Monday. A state fire marshal was examining the school by 2 p.m. and remained there early Monday evening. No cause for the fire had been determined as of press time.

Damage was estimated at about $1 million Sunday night, with another $500,000 in damage from the Monday flare-up.

Andrew Krueger of the News Tribune staff contributed to this story.

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