Mt. Whitney to rebuild auto shop

Visalia Unified awards $2.1 million project to Forcum/Mackey; shop may reopen this fall


VISALIA – Things should finally look normal at Mt. Whitney High School this fall after a year of students and staff walking passed the melted metal of the former auto shop. 

At its April 9 meeting, the Visalia Unified Board of Trustees took the first step in rebuilding the traditional auto and welding shop by awarding a local contractor. The board voted unanimously to approve Forcum/Mackey Construction, Inc. for the $2.1 million reconstruction project. 

Just over a year ago, a three-alarm fire melted half of the metal agriculture shop building at the high school leaving the southern wall bowed and distorted with a lingering smell of smoke around the immediate area. Investigators were unable to determine a cause of the fire but they were certain it started in the ag mechanics portion of the building. Battalion Chief Darrin Hughes with the Visalia Fire Department said the last students left campus at about 3:30 p.m. on March 19 and the last maintenance employee left around 5 p.m., two hours before the fire alarm went off.

“That employee said there was nothing out of the ordinary when they left campus,” Hughes told the Sun-Gazette last year.

The fire alarm began echoing through the school and surrounding neighborhood at 6:58 p.m. with the first VFD engine arriving within five minutes but the flames were already burning through the roof. Upon arrival they called for back up. In all 40 firefighters, eight engines and two ladder trucks responded to the fire before it was under control at about 8 p.m., including two units from the Tulare County Fire Department and one unit from the Tulare City and Farmersville fire departments.

Most of the $2.5 million in damage to the 9,000-square foot building was contained to the auto shop with some smoke and heat damage to the welding shop thanks to a concrete wall separating the two halves. The welding shop remained structural intact while the auto shop was a complete loss. Principal Rick Hamilton estimated that the shop was built in the 1960s. More importantly, firefighters were able to avoid the fire spreading across a breezeway to a similar sized metal building and no one was injured. Crews worked through the night to extinguish hot spots and turned over the building to Visalia Unified School District at 7 a.m. on March 20, according to Hamilton.

The fire forced Hamilton to reassign students in auto shop, ag mechanics and ag welding to portables where they were unable to do hands-on training. 

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