Classes were immediately canceled and more than 300 students and 40 faculty members had to evacuate Oconto High School (Oconto, WI) on April 16, 2014, when a fire broke out in the school. Deemed to have been caused from the burning of recycled plastic bathroom partitions in a boy’s restroom, the fire spewed thick, toxic black smoke throughout the building via its ventilation system. While the fire occurred in a relatively small area of the school, extensive restoration and reconstruction was necessary throughout the entire building due to large amounts of smoke and soot that permeated the 1960’s-era structure, resulting in an estimated $5 million worth of damage.

The Oconto Unified School District and its insurance team contacted crews from Milwaukee-based Paul Davis National and Paul Davis Restoration and Remodeling of Southeast Wisconsin and work was permitted to be performed onsite quickly, as clean-up and stabilization efforts began shortly after the fire. Emergency services teams started the large-scale work to clean the building and its contents with great cooperation from school administrators, teachers and students. Crews worked around the clock with nearly 300 individuals during the day and 140 at night.

Initially, Paul Davis sent numerous 53-foot tractor trailers to the school to support hundreds of crew members with advanced restoration equipment. During the job, all procedures were completed at the customer’s direction and approvals were reviewed by the school officials and insurance carriers. All parties worked together to secure the project, develop the scope of work, execute the plan, document the progress and calculate costs. The process remained fluid and flexible to meet predetermined deadlines. 

The most significant work was the cleaning of the surfaces above the ceiling tile - especially the duct work - and restoration crews painstakingly cleaned up smoke and soot from virtually every space in the school. This was accompanied with sanitizing and cleaning contents while emptying each student locker and bagging, tagging and identifying items. Hard and soft goods were packed up, cleaned and laundered at Paul Davis’ contents facility in Milwaukee. In the meantime, workers covered all student lockers in plastic and utilized special hydroxyl generators to eliminate fire and smoke odors. Items were replaced in the lockers for students when they returned to school.

Crews also worked with teachers and labeled materials in the classrooms to be saved or discarded. They photographed rooms and contents so that items could be placed back in the exact spaces after cleaning.

Walls were thoroughly cleaned and repainted, floors received a new vinyl base and five coats of wax and restoration crews even went as far as improving the appearance of the school’s interior by installing lighter colored ceiling tiles. The boy’s restroom in the north hallway, which is where the fire started, was completely rebuilt – and the plastic recycled partitions which fueled the flames have since been replaced with metal ones.

Senior project managers Neal Lengacher and Winston Bean were responsible for overseeing day and night crews during the entire process and working with teachers and staff members to streamline restoration efforts.

Like many of Paul Davis’ large losses, the Oconto High School project was a highly organized emergency response effort with closely followed protocol.

“Large losses can be unpredictable,” says J. Murphy, Paul Davis National. “Response strategy must be managed with well-planned and immediate action. We have a significant advantage with the extensive experience in large losses associated with the public school sector and other industries.

“Our primary objective is to operate all loss sites efficiently by establishing in writing the proposed tactics and techniques in advance of implementation. Documentation must be delivered in an accurate and timely manner to ensure efficient cost containment.”

With students and faculty relocated to the nearby Oconto Middle School, restoration crews completed the large loss by working around-the-clock for just over three weeks. Students returned to class on May 12, 2014 after it passed all environmental and safety standards.

 “Paul Davis did a great job and I could not have been more confident and pleased with their work, professionalism, and caring nature,” said Dr. Sara Croney, Oconto Unified School Districts Superintendent. “I had great peace of mind while working with the entire team and we are all very grateful that our school has been put back together better than ever.”