Of the Baker City Herald

A portion of the vacant Churchill School basement was flooded Monday morning after a fire activated a sprinkler in one of the rooms.

The fire was set directly under a sprinkler head, said Baker City Police Sgt. Wyn Lohner. Police and fire department officials are investigating the fire as an arson.

Lohner found about a foot of water covering the cement floors of three basement rooms in the building at 17th and Broadway streets when he arrived about 9:15 a.m. Monday.

Kevin Bell of Clarke and Clarke Insurance Agency, which provides insurance coverage for Baker School District property, said the building sustained only minor damage. He did not expect repair costs to reach the district's $1,000 deductible.

Water flowed around a boiler in the furnace room, but caused no apparent damage, he said.

andquot;It looks to us like we were extremely fortunate that that sprinkler did put out the fire,andquot; Bell said.

The building is insured at its replacement cost of about $2.2 million.

Lohner was called to the school on a report of a broken window in a door at the southeast corner of the building. A volunteer at the nearby Head Start program reported the vandalism, he said.

Upon investigating, Lohner discovered that the building had been entered. He followed a sound of high pressure blowing in the basement area that led him to water standing on the floor of the furnace room.

The sound was a sprinkler head sending water through the furnace room and two smaller adjoining rooms, Lohner said. The fire had been started in one of the smaller rooms. The building suffered no fire damage and the water was confined to the three rooms.

Lohner declined to release information about how the fire was started pending further investigation. He said he believes more than one person was involved in the arson. He has developed two suspects in the investigation.

Lohner was able to obtain fingerprints from a fire extinguisher that had been moved from a case on the wall and from the case itself. He also lifted prints from an item left in the area where the fire was started, he said.

andquot;I'm optimistic,andquot; he said this morning. andquot;I'm hoping the prints or interviews today will start turning things up.andquot;

Lohner called the city's Public Works Department Monday morning to get the water turned off as quickly as possible. The school district and Baker City Fire Department employees then pumped the water from the basement outside to the playground area.

Churchill School was closed in the spring of 2002 as a cost-saving measure. It has set empty for the past year. The school district is seeking a buyer for the property.