District to burn down old school building

DES MOINES – A nearly century-old elementary school building in the western Iowa town of Exira will soon go up in flames as part of a school district’s efforts to save money and offer fire training in the process.

The Exira Elk Horn-Kimballton Community School District’s controlled burn Sunday will destroy a building that once served most children in the area. It’s expected to take several hours and involve a dozen or so fire departments from around the region.

“It’s been quite a process figuring out what we could do,” said Superintendent Dean Schnoes. “We finally came up with the final decision, ‘Let’s burn this down and give firefighters from around the area an opportunity to maybe come in and either work the structure or even do some training just before it’s torn down,’ just so they have an idea of what our older buildings might look like on the inside.”

The building in Exira, about 60 miles west of Des Moines, closed in 2011 after it became unstable.

“Looking on the outside of it, it looked very sound,” Schnoes said. “But when you got on the inside of it, that’s where you started finding out that things were falling in. The structure was starting to shift. It just wasn’t a safe place to put children anymore.”

So it closed, and elementary students were moved to nearby Elk Horn as part of a sharing agreement with another district. The agreement means some grades attend classes in Exira and others attend in Elk Horn.

Officials nixed plans to sell the building because the costs would outweigh any chance for refurbishment. They determined demolishing the building could make the site attractive for private redevelopment. The idea for a controlled burn became a serious option when district officials realized they could save up to $60,000 in demolition costs. That’s because a fire would lighten the weight of debris that must be hauled away to a landfill.

“We want to try to do what’s best, especially in these times, when you talk about financial issues for schools,” Schnoes said. “So you want to try to save the school district as much as you can and you want to try to save as much as you can for the taxpayers because it’s their money that is being involved in the operation of a school system, and the school building is part of that.”

Randy Blohm, a demolition consultant who works with the district, said controlled burns of residential and commercial buildings are common in Iowa, but this is only the second school building of its size that he can recall being deliberately burned.

“There are still a lot of old school buildings around,” he said, and noted that location, costs, and even materials used determine whether a building is eligible for a controlled burn. “They’re expensive to bring down.”

Blohm said the Exira burn has received plenty of attention, and he expects spectators to be out on lawn chairs, as they would at a parade.

“I think there will be a lot of people there who attended the school, who just want to see it,” he said. “Also, people just like to see a fire.”