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Portage High School auditorium fire sparked by overheated stage light, fire chief says

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PORTAGE — Fire officials say a heated stage light caused a small fire in the Portage High School East Auditorium on Wednesday afternoon that prompted evacuations shortly before the end of the school day.

Portage Fire Chief Tim Sosby said his crew responded to the school just after 2 p.m. Wednesday to find a stage curtain on fire producing large amounts of smoke.

Sosby said the curtain's flame retardant material prevented the spread of any flames, but smoke inhalation at the time was a major concern.

The Portage Township School Corp. is still investigating who may have been in the area of the East Auditorium on Wednesday afternoon as the curtain caught fire, district spokeswomen Melissa Deavers-Lowie said.

A high school orchestra concert scheduled for Wednesday night was canceled, as well as other after-school activities and athletic events.

The school has also postponed this weekend's spring musical "Cinderella," and a Royal Tea Party scheduled for Saturday, according to a statement from Portage Superintendent Amanda Alaniz.

Sosby said the school worked quickly to evacuate students Wednesday afternoon before the fire department arrived, but that multiple staff members remained in the building attempting to put out the flaming curtain using fire extinguishers.

Two staff members were taken to the hospital for treatment for smoke inhalation, Sosby said, adding he expects there were no serious injuries.

Sosby said the fire was put out quickly, but crews remained at the school for about an hour after the initial call to help move thick smoke out of the building. He said 100 gallons of water were used to douse the flames.

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The evacuation late in the day prompted delayed dismissal times for high school, elementary school and some middle school students.

Evacuated Portage High School students were allowed to return to the building late Wednesday afternoon to collect belongings left in classrooms when alarms first sounded.

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School resumed as normal throughout the Portage Township School Corp. Thursday morning.

Initial damage estimates were quoted for $2,500 to $5,000, but Sosby said he expects the cost could be greater depending on cleaning expenses. He said smoke and fire extinguishers likely caused the greatest damage.

Deavers-Lowie said the district will work with crews in the coming days to evaluate damage and clean the auditorium. Any musical classes that may have been scheduled to meet in the East Auditorium will be redirected to use the high school's West Auditorium, she said.

A rescheduled date for "Cinderella" and the Royal Tea Party have not yet been set, according to the superintendent's statement.

"Professionals will be at the high school to assess the damage and begin the cleanup process as we work to have the auditorium open for use as soon as possible," Alaniz said. "The students have worked incredibly hard on this production, and we want to ensure everyone has the opportunity to enjoy their performance."

Alaniz commended district staff and the Portage police and fire departments for their partnership. She said the district's safety and security teams will continue to meet this week to evaluate response to the event.

"The staff and students did a great job evacuating the building in a quick manner by following all protocols and directions," Alaniz said. "School safety and security remains our first priority, and yesterday's successful evacuation is a testament to our students and staff as well as our school safety plans."

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Education Reporter

Carley Lanich covers education in Lake County and throughout the Region. She comes to Northwest Indiana from Indianapolis and is an IU-Bloomington grad.

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