Years of work and hundreds of thousands of dollars went up in flames when a former athletic-club-turned-Sikh-gurdwara burned to the ground early Friday.
The fire sparked just before 2:30 a.m. at the 17,000 square-foot former Landover Athletic Club in the east Vancouver Landover-Sharmel neighborhood. The Guru Ramdass Sikh Community, the largest Sikh group in the Portland metro area with about 200 member families, bought the building in 2008. The group had nearly completed renovations and planned to move from its small Rose Village gurdwara on O Street to the new building in December, member Gurjit Singh said.
That’s not an option anymore.
“It was devastating,” group president Sarabjeet Teja said of the fire. “We’ve been working on this the last four years.”
Singh, Teja and others watched as firefighters attempted to douse what was left of the fire after 7 a.m. The gurdwara stood in charred ruins as smoke filled the neighborhood. Burned pieces of the building were spotted in yards hundreds of feet away. A plastic fence behind the building bowed from heat.
The building is a total loss, said Vancouver Fire Dept. spokesman Capt. Kevin Murray. According to county property records, it was valued at $213,000.
The fire was reported by neighbors at 2:25 a.m. When the first engine arrived seven minutes later, the entire building was engulfed in flames, Murray said.
“The captain on Engine 10 said it was the largest fire he had ever seen and he’s a 25-year veteran,” Murray said.
Kyle Bliquez lives in a home that backs to the temple. He said he and his brother Jonny heard a loud “boom” and scream around 2:30 a.m. They saw the flames and called 911.
“(The fire) was pretty big at that point,” Bliquez said. “It got pretty big, pretty quick.”
Two men, believed to be construction contractors, were staying in the building. They were awakened by the fire and escaped without injury, Murray said.
No one was reported inside and the building was unsafe to enter, Murray said, so firefighters used defensive tactics to prevent the fire from spreading.
Fire crews remained on scene through the day Friday. The building was still smoking in the early afternoon.
“It’s going to be a pretty slow pace going forward,” Murray said.
Once the fire is doused, the investigation into its cause can begin. The FBI and U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were on the scene Friday morning and will investigate the fire along with the city fire marshal.
Murray said it’s standard procedure for federal investigators to respond to the scene of any fire at a place of worship.
Although it is unclear what caused the fire, Deputy Fire Marshal Chad Lawry told KOIN-TV a natural gas line may have fueled the flames.
The proposal to transform the former athletic club into a house of worship and community gathering place was initially opposed by neighbors, who cited traffic and, ironically, insufficient fire hydrants and the lack of fire sprinklers in the building. In 2009, a hearings examiner ruled in favor of the congregation’s proposal and the city council upheld the hearings examiner’s ruling.
The congregation resolved those concerns with neighbors at meetings, Teja said. He said the group hasn’t had any issues with neighbors recently.
Harrison McMillan, whose house backs to the temple, said the Sikhs have been good neighbors. They’ve been by to visit, clean up after themselves and at one point brought his dog back to him after it escaped, McMillan said. He’s sorry for their loss.
“I just hope it’s not a hate crime,” he said.
Singh said the Sikh community needs for investigators to find out what happened.