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July 31. 2013 8:33PM

Portsmouth police station fire under investigation

PORTSMOUTH — Clean-up continues at the Portsmouth Police Station while the cause of a two-alarm blaze in the firing range on Tuesday night remains unknown.

Police Capt. Frank Warchol said the station officer noticed thick, black, acrid smoke coming up the stairwell from the basement around 7:45 p.m.

Five people, including dispatch operators, were evacuated to a redundancy communications center on Peverly Hill Road while crews battled the smoky fire for more than two hours.

Fire Chief Steve Achilles said the fire started in a thick pile of rubber backing used as a cachement area for rounds fired on the four-lane, 25-yard range.

The majority of damage was contained to that area, with serious smoke and some water damage throughout the basement, which also houses the men’s and women’s locker rooms and a gym.

Warchol said cleaning crews found soot as high as the fourth floor of the building. The police station occupies the basement, first floor and part of the second floor with City Hall offices in the remainder of the cinderblock building.

City hall and the police station were open for business on Wednesday, with the smell of smoke lingering in the air.

Warchol said dispatch operations returned to the station around 4 a.m. on Wednesday.

As of Wednesday afternoon Warchol said there was still a lot of clean-up to do and had no idea the estimated cost to repair the damage. He said it is possible that the firing range is “totaled.”

“There is a lot of blackened pieces of equipment down there,” Warchol said.

Insurance adjustors still needed to be called in and clean-up on Wednesday was focused in areas around the firing range to mitigate the smell permeating up through the building, Warchol said.

Carpeting in the locker rooms and the lockers themselves, where many officers keep their uniforms, also need to be cleaned up.

“This has been a significant inconvenience for us for obvious reasons but we are dealing with it the best we can right now,” Warchol said.

Once they get a handle on the clean-up process, Warchol said they will turn to an investigation of the cause. He said it is going to be very difficult to determine what started the fire.

Police were able to determine that someone was firing in the range prior to the start of the fire, but could not confirm exactly when.

The basement range is used every week and has been in operation for more than 20 years without any previous problems, Warchol said.

Officers practice with duty rounds and practice rounds, which are mainly 40 caliber bullets, Warchol said.

He said he does not expect the materials used in the backing to be changed if the firing range is reconstructed, as they have been used safely for years, but is not sure the range will be replaced, with the city in early talks about finding a new home for the police station.

gmacalaster@newstote.com


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