After weathering a major fire and its consequences, Joseph Charter School is putting things back together. Classes will resume on Jan. 27 according to superintendent Lance Hohman.

“We are not sure of the timing to return to the upper classrooms,” Homan said. “Grades 5 and 6 may have to have classes off campus for awhile, but we’d like to keep grades 5 to 12 on campus when classes start up next week.”

The elementary school, or Lower Level for grades K-4 should be cleaned up and ready for students by Monday.

“We are taking every precaution during this restoration process,” Homan said. “So when we give the OK to resume classes in the building, it will be a safe, clean place for students and everyone.”

The classsroom damage was mainly the consequence of smoke and particles spread by the fire in the gym and mechanical room. The cleanup crews have assured Homan that when students come back a lot of it will be repainted, and everything will look brand new.

The school’s office area has already been cleaned up and there’s a temporary wall that separates it from the rest of the building, so that cleanup can continue there. But the newly accessible office provides a space for staff to plan their next steps.

“The reaction of the community here and our neighboring communities make me feel very fortunate to be where I am,” Homan said. “It’s been very humbling.”

The gym has been badly damaged by the fire. The upper level on the south side, with weight room and wrestling mats and equipment bore the brunt of the damage. Light fixtures exploded or melted. All the walls are now mostly charcoal, weightlifting and exercise equipment are charred and burned, and even the iron barbells bear signs telling rescue from the fire. The wall between the mechanical room and weight room was breached by flames that quickly spread to the ceiling, walls and staircase. Sprinklers went off, helping to quench some of the flames, but the heat, smoke and flaming particles from the open upper level spread into the gym. Banners melted. Water flooded the floor. Ceiling tiles fell, as did the flag and the lights.

There is no light in the gym now save that which filters through the high windows. But even in the darkness, the gym seems to have a persistent spirit. Two basketballs, soot-covered and waterlogged, inhabit the floor, apparently waiting, hoping, that their players will return.

It’s a difficult time, but to Homan and his staff, it offers promise.

“A lot of us feel strangely excited for the opportunities we have moving forward,” he said.

“I can’t tell you how great a staff we have. On Friday morning we had a meeting,” Homan said. “But when I walked into the room, everyone was there—cooks, bus drivers, teachers, just nearly everybody came although it was a holiday weekend.”

The people of Wallowa County and adjacent communities have reached out to help. Joseph’s basketball teams will play their games in Enterprise and Wallowa’s gyms.

Homan said Joseph has received an outpouring of support from across the region and even the state.

Other coaches from across the region and state, as well as by the Oregon School Activities Association, have contacted Homan. And basketball coach Olin Fulfer listed Enterprise, Wallowa, Elgin, Imbler and Weston-McEwen among the schools whose coaches have reached out to him, offering everything from gym use, basketballs, practice jerseys and even game jerseys.

Two of those nearby neighbors are offering financial support. The Elgin School District on its Facebook page Friday said it would donate the gate of Saturday’s home game against Imbler, as well as any donations contributed by attendees and funds raised from a blanket toss, to Joseph. Imbler, in addition, donated the gate from its Friday game against Griswold to Joseph and passed a hat to collect donations from fans.

The two basketball games raised more than $2,600.

”In education, we’re always trying to help them build community. Sometimes it’s important for (students) to recognize that community is not just the group that is around you daily,” said Elgin Superintendent Dianne Greif, who organized the donation plan along with some of the Elgin High School basketball players. “It was an opportunity to help them recognize they have the opportunity to help. It won’t come anywhere close to covering what was lost, but it’s a good opportunity to help our kids help their friends.”

The fire started Thursday, Jan. 16, while Joseph Charter School students were enjoying a leisurely lunch. When the fire alarm went off, they quickly evacuated the school, thinking it was another fire drill. But when black smoke began curling out of the gym ventilators it was evident that this was the real thing.

Joseph Fire Department responded within minutes as well as Enterprise Fire, Wallowa County Sheriff and Oregon State Police not long afterward to the Sather Court blaze, a particularly difficult one to fight because of the size of the building, its inherent darkness and smoke. Hard work by the firefighters allowed them to get the upper hand on the blaze after 45 minutes. This kept the fire from spreading out of the gym and into classroom territory. The Oregon State Fire Marshal is currently inspecting the scene to determine a cause.

Students and staff were evacuated to the Joseph Community Center. Younger students took a bus. Older students walked. The school sent emails and text messages to parents, advising them to come and pick up their children. No-one was hurt in the fire or evacuation.

Homan said that at the present time they have not set up any way to accept donations, but expect to in the next week or so. Those who wish to reach out to help can call the Joseph school office at 541-432-7311 or visit the school’s Facebook page or website: www.staff.josephcharter.org.

Ronald Bond, La Grande Observer, contributed significantly to this story.

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