Fire guts Houlka school

Chickasaw County School Superintendent, Dr. Betsy Collums, left, and Financial Officer Connie Phillips, look at the smoking hulk of the Houlka Attendance Center Thursday afternoon. The school burned Wednesday afternoon and the first day of class is Aug. 6. (Floyd Ingram / Buy at photos.chickasawjournal.com)

Chickasaw County School Superintendent, Dr. Betsy Collums, left, and Financial Officer Connie Phillips, look at the smoking hulk of the Houlka Attendance Center Thursday afternoon. The school burned Wednesday afternoon and the first day of class is Aug. 6.
(Floyd Ingram / Buy at photos.chickasawjournal.com)

HOULKA – The historic Houlka Attendance Center was destroyed last week in one of the largest fires in Chickasaw County in recent history.

Firefighters responded to a blaze that engulfed the 70-year-old building about 1:15 p.m. Wednesday, July 30 and the facility was a smoking hulk at 4:30 p.m. No one was injured in the fire or in fighting it.

Fire departments from as far away as Pontotoc and Okolona responded to the scene. At one point, flames could be seen shooting 50- to 60-feet in the air, with smoke visible from Highway 15, more than two miles away.

Dr. Betsy Collums, Superintendent of Chickasaw County Schools, said no staff or children were in the building when the blaze broke out, only workers who were renovating windows and heating and air conditioning systems.

The school’s roof collapsed about 1:35 p.m. and the auditorium was engulfed in flames at 1:45 p.m. By 2:20 p.m., the smoke had begun turning white, indicating the fire was being brought under control.

Terry Short, Chief of Houlka Volunteer Fire Department, said this was the departments biggest fire ever and he wished more could have been done.

“I always hate it when you can’t save more,” said Short. “Our guys responded to a furniture (factory) fire in Pontotoc a couple of years ago, but this was the biggest local thing we’ve ever seen. Our guys did all they could and thankfully we had a lot of help.”

The amount of water used by fire units stressed Houlka’s water supply, so water was shuttled in as firefighters tried to keep the fire from spreading to the nearby office building and the high school.

Houlka Attendance Center, which was built in 1935, housed fifth- and sixth-graders as well as some high classes. The historic building was undergoing a renovation of it’s tall individually paned windows and of both heat and electrical systems.
The board met with contractors Wednesday who apologized for the fire.
Subcontractor Steve Fowlkes said he was capping gas lines for contractor Sonny Sullivan when the fire began. Fowlkes said he was soldering copper pipe in the attic and the fire kindled in insulation. He said he called for a fire extinguisher but the fire moved quickly and they evacuated the building.

Rumors of a gas explosion have been ruled to be just that.

Short said the fire was in one room on the west side of the building when he arrived in Houlka’s fire truck. He said the truck ran out of water and the building was fully involved in the space of 10-minutes.

Units from Houston, Okolona, Algoma, Randolph, Beckham, Thorn and Troy-Woodland sent more than 16 pieces of equipment to the scene to fight the fire. Houlka police, Chickasaw County Sheriff’s Deputies and the Mississippi Highway Patrol were called in to direct traffic and help with security.

Houlka Fire Chief Terry Short spent the night on the scene in a fire truck Wednesday to secure the site and to keep the fire from rekindling.
Most of the community turned out to watch the building in the heart of New Houlka burn. Water was brought to firefighters hard at work in summer heat. A meal was provided by the community at Houlka Gym that night.

“I graduated from this building, and my parents did, too,” said Shelly Collums, a Chickasaw County School Trustee and Houlka native. “We lost the building, but we didn’t lose the memories. Houlka will overcome this. We will rebuild.”

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