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Churches step up security in wake of fires

Officials suspect 3 blazes are work of serial arsonist

By , Columbian Breaking News Reporter
Published: May 31, 2016, 8:21pm

The lead pastor at Crossroads Community Church said Tuesday that there used to be a time when churches were off-limits when it came to falling victim to crime.

“Unfortunately those days are gone,” the Rev. Daniel Fusco said. “Destruction doesn’t really have any boundaries at this point. … It’s completely unacceptable and unfortunate.”

In response to the recent string of arsons targeting current and former churches, Fusco said the church hired 24-hour security over the holiday weekend and assessed the campus’s security on Tuesday.

“We feel we have done everything we know how to do,” he said. “We’re going to make sure we have our facility and our campus as tight as it can be, but there are certain things that are out of your control no matter what you do.”

While Clark County fire investigators continue their hunt for an apparent serial arsonist targeting church buildings, sanctuary leaders around the area are buckling down.

“People are concerned,” said the Rev. Martha Maier, pastor at St. Andrew Lutheran Church. “We’re making sure the things we have in place are working … we’re just making sure we’re doing what we can do to be safe.”

Maier said the church, at 5607 N.E. Gher Road near state Highway 500, burned in 1994. That accidental fire was started by books stacked near a heater.

She said her congregation, which worshipped in an insurance office building during the repairs, empathizes with the members of churches damaged in the recent fires and is sending cards to show their support.

Investigators are offering a reward of up to $10,000 for information that leads to an arrest in the string of recent arsons.

The first fire was reported at 3 a.m. on May 25 at the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Hazel Dell. That fire caused the most damage, with fire investigators estimating that nearly $2 million in structure and contents were damaged in the blaze.

At about the same time the following morning, a fire was reported at Liberty Bible Church of the Nazarene in the Salmon Creek area. Sprinklers extinguished that fire, preventing much fire damage but causing fairly extensive water damage, investigators said.

The third fire was reported at about 2 a.m. Sunday at 11910 N.E. 154th St. in Brush Prairie. The building is the former home of the Bethesda Slavic Church but is to be converted into an addiction treatment center by Daybreak Youth Services. Minor damage was reported.

“We’re looking at these as if they’re all connected,” Clark County Fire Marshal Jon Dunaway said.

He said that the similarities are the obvious ones — the buildings are all prominent and near major roadways, all are current or former churches, all the fires broke out around 3 a.m., and all the fires were intentionally set.

Serial arsons are fairly uncommon in Clark County, though there was a string of arsons reported about a year ago in Vancouver.

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Fifteen fires were intentionally set to property including garbage, recycling receptacles, fences and part of a Mazda truck in mid-May of 2015.

The fires were all reported in neighborhoods on the city’s west side — Shumway, Lincoln, Carter Park and Hough neighborhoods. Fire Marshal Heidi Scarpelli said there have been no arrests made in that investigation.

An estimated 282,600 intentionally set fires occur each year, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Annually, those result in 420 deaths, 1,360 injuries and $1.3 billion in property damage.

One in five arson cases were cleared by arrest or other means, and two out of every five suspects arrested for arson were younger than 18, according to the FBI.

Though Dunaway said it’s too early to talk about what is motivating the culprit to commit the crimes, he said that there are a number of common reasons behind many arsons.

Among those are insurance fraud, revenge or a desire to be the person who discovers the fire and thus become a hero.

But what could be the motive in the church fires?

“In this case, we’re not sure,” he said.

To answer those questions, fire investigators are in the middle of looking at evidence collected at the scene and talking to potential witnesses, Dunaway said.

“It’s important that we talk to anybody who saw anything,” he said. “Even if it’s something that just seems unusual in the area, let us know so we can follow up.”

Anyone with information about the fires is asked to call 911; the Clark County Fire Marshal’s Office at 360-397-2186, ext. 3321; or the sheriff’s office at 360-397-6079.

His team is working hard, he said, to catch the person responsible before a string of three arsons becomes a string of four.

“We’re hoping we find who it is before they have more opportunities,” Dunaway said.

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