by: FILE PHOTO - Signs were posted inside the Columbia County Courthouse warning occupants not to use electronic equipment for fear that fire retardant powder lodged inside could damage or destroy it, as seen in this July 29 photograph.It must have been a surreal moment at 4:30 p.m. on July 26 at the Columbia County Courthouse, when a firefighter responding to emergency reports of an unusual odor in the building pulled an alarm that ended up making the entire situation much, much worse.

Columbia River Fire and Rescue Division Chief Ron Youngberg unintentionally triggered the release of a fire retardant powder that destroyed county computers and electronic equipment and spread throughout the building via air ducts, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage (“Fire chief triggers county office closure,” Aug. 2). Although the incident occurred on a Friday, when county offices are closed due to budget shortfalls, the building remained closed on the following Monday, and cleanup crews haunted the halls and cleaned computer parts outside the courthouse for more than a week after that.

The source of the odor to which Youngberg responded was identified as a malfunctioning backup battery pack, according to a statement from the county.

County commissioners and Youngberg’s boss, Chief Jay Tappan, dismissed the division chief’s mistake and blamed the mishap on the installation last year of the new fire suppression system, with which they said many in the county were unfamiliar. Commissioners expressed confidence that the cost of damage will be covered by insurance (“County recovering from courthouse damage,” Aug. 15).

Commissioner Henry Heimuller gives the latest estimate for damage at about $340,000.

“We feel like it’s not going to go much higher,” says Heimuller. “The most that we would likely have out-of-pocket as far as the claim is concerned is our deductible.”

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