Firefighters are still on the scene of a three-alarm blaze that heavily damaged a Hazel Dell church early this morning.
Crews from Clark County Fire District 6 were called to a fire alarm at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1220 N.E. 68th St., about 3 a.m. today, according to agency spokesman Dave Schmitke.
One engine responded and saw the flames and immediately called for a third alarm, sending more resources from the fire agency as well as five engines from the Vancouver Fire Department to help, Schmitke said.
The west side of the building, which holds the sanctuary, sustained heavy damage from a fire that appeared to start on outside the building on the west side, Schmitke said.
Ken Rowe, the church’s moderator, got the early morning call from the alarm company and got dressed and drove to the church.
“I was hoping it was a false alarm,” he said. “The minute I pulled into the driveway, I saw smoke. And for about a half an hour … all I saw was smoke.”
He watched as firefighters attacked the blaze and then he saw the west steeple become engulfed in flames.
“I just felt shock,” he said. “I was thinking about all the parishioners who have put a lot of time and money into it and what they would think.”
Several church members gathered as firefighters worked throughout the morning to get all the hot spots out. Part of that work included using a boom truck to access the 120-foot tall steeple which still had smoke coming from the top. Firefighters used a chainsaw to cut holes in the steeple to ventilate the area and to access the area with a hose.
The church is known in the area as one of the most significant landmarks in Hazel Dell, as it sits on a hill and looks like an upside down boat, Schmitke said.
The cause of the blaze will be investigated by the Clark County Fire Marshal’s Office once the scene is safe enough for an investigator to gain access.
Church member Joan Blair said the church is open and affirming in its stance as pro gay rights and has received threats in the past, but isn’t sure if that had anything to do with the fire. She also said a homeless man lives on the property and a woman with mental illness lives next door.
Blair, who watched as firefighters worked, called the fire devastating but said it wouldn’t be for long.
“We’re a very strong congregation,” she said. “We’re stronger than any building.”
This story will be updated as information becomes available.