Suspicious fire guts $230,000 classroom

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Updated: 10.24am: 

A teenager will appear in court today following a fire last night that extensively damaged a trailer unit owned by the Life Education charity.

Life Education visits schools with its mobile classroom to help provide children with the knowledge to make informed choices that will help them to reach their full potential.

At approximately 6.15pm last night someone set fire to the classroom while it was parked on the netball courts of Brookfield Primary School, resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars of estimated damaged.

A 17-year-old youth from Tauranga was arrested overnight and will be appearing in the Tauranga District court today charged with arson.

The crime scene remained under guard overnight and a full scene examination would be conducted today by specialist police staff.

Police still want to hear from anyone who was in the area yesterday who heard or saw anything relevant to this investigation. In particular they want to hear from anyone who was at the scene prior to the arrival of the emergency services who haven't yet spoken to police.

Anyone with information is asked to contact Tauranga CIB on 07 577 4300.

09.00am

An "extremely suspicious" fire has gutted a popular mobile classroom at a city primary school within walking distance of two other suspected arsons.

Firefighters and police were called to Brookfield School shortly before 6 o'clock last night after the blaze was discovered in the $230,000 Life Education Mobile Classroom, stationed on the sports court on the school grounds.

A small window in the side of the front was found to have been smashed by a brick and the truck's back door was slightly ajar.

Tauranga Fire Brigade senior station officer Len Saben told the Bay of Plenty Times the fire looked like the work of an arsonist.

"It's looking extremely suspicious. We've had some issues with arson in the area in the past week [or so]. It's looking a little too coincidental for my liking," he said.

During Queen's Birthday weekend, two suspicious fires were reported in rubbish bins: At Otumoetai Primary School, slightly more than 1km away, and at New World Brookfield, about 200m away.

"[In this case] I'm picking someone has climbed [in] through the window, set the fire and climbed out the back door," Mr Saben said.

A piece of brick was discovered by firefighters inside of the truck below the window, and outside the truck, more brick and broken glass could be seen.

Mr Saben said the fire was intense when the crews arrived: "It was absolutely well-involved upon arrival ... It's 100 per cent loss on the inside."

Fire crews from Tauranga and Greerton attended the blaze and were joined by six police officers, including two CIB detectives.

A young man at the scene was spoken to by police before being placed in the back of a police car with an officer.

The man, who had earlier spoken to the Bay of Plenty Times outside the school, said he had alerted the fire service after discovering the blaze.

"I saw it on fire so I called the fire brigade. It [the fire] was coming out the window ... about one metre out the window. I thought, 'Oh my God, how could somebody do it to Life Education?"'

Acting Sergeant Scott Merritt said the damage was substantial.

"We're speaking to anyone we can at the moment," he said.

The Life Education Mobile Classroom is run by a community trust in Tauranga. There are two trucks in Tauranga, which are booked more than a year in advance by local schools to assist health and science learning programmes.

Michael Chemis, the teacher employed to operate the truck that burned, said it was "really disappointing" to have lost his classroom.

"I've worked in that one for about nine years. [Now] I'm not sure what will happen for me," Mr Chemis said. "I had a colleague ... and the same thing happened to her. I didn't appreciate then how much it meant to her. I probably didn't get it. But when I arrived here to see it ... it's pretty emotional."

"[And] It's something kids love. It's really positive what we do in that classroom. It's shocking."

Mr Chemis said the trucks cost about $230,000 to design and build, much of which was raised by volunteers.

"I think there must be something genuinely wrong ... for someone to want to do that to something that brings so much joy and happiness to so many kids," Mr Chemis said.

Mark Barratt, chairman of the school board of trustees, said if the fire was intentionally lit it was a senseless act.

"If it's proven to be [arson], it's just a random act of vandalism at the expense of children's learning. It's a shame that it could be laid to waste so fast," he said.

While Tauranga and Greerton fire crews attended the Brookfield fire, Mount Maunganui crews battled a scrub fire in Matapihi. That fire was believed to have been caused by a fire to a wasp nest that got out of control.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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