A historic church building was destroyed in North Clark County on early Monday morning in a human-caused fire that’s currently under investigation following a Fourth of July weekend that saw increased emergency activity in some fire districts, but not others.
According to a news release from Clark-Cowlitz Fire Rescue (CCFR,) the fire district alongside Clark County Fire District 3 responded just before 2:25 a.m. July 5 to the 24200 block of Northeast 92nd Avenue in Battle Ground. A neighbor reportedly heard an explosion and saw the fire.
When a fire engine arrived, the second story of the church and its steeple were fully engulfed, with a house on the property threatened by the flames, the release stated. “Extreme clutter” both in the church and on the property made it difficult for fire crews to stretch hose lines around to the church and the house. CCFR Chief John Nohr said “hundreds” of mannequins on the property and other items contributed to the fire’s growth because crews could not get the hose lines across the property.
Based on the situation, an incident commander decided to switch to a “defensive mode,” and fought the fire from outside of the structure. Wind carried embers from the fire to a large stand of timber east of the property.
The fire eventually spread to the house next to the church and to sheds located in the backyard of the church, stated the release. Flames venting from a 200-gallon propane tank near the back wall of the church further hindered firefighter’s efforts.
The tank continued to vent for more than an hour until it was out of propane, according to the release. A lack of fire hydrants in the area led fire crews to rely on four water tenders to shuttle water from more than a mile away on Northeast 219th Street.
The Clark County Fire Marshal’s Office is conducting the investigation into the fire. As of Tuesday afternoon, the office had not concluded its investigation.
Security video secured by the fire investigator showed a vehicle pulling up to the church, and a “possible flaming material being directed at the church from the vehicle,” according to the release. The video then shows the vehicle speeding away.
CCFR and Clark County Fire District 3 received additional support from the Vancouver Fire Department and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR.) In total, 42 personnel, 10 fire engines, one ladder truck, four water tenders, four chief officers, two DNR wildland fire engines and one DNR crew boss responded.
The church that burned was more than a century old. According to “Battle Ground...In and Around,” a book detailing a history of the area, the church was built in 1910 by volunteer labor and donated lumber from Robert Watson. Initially a United Brethren church, the church was eventually put back into service by the Cherry Grove Friends.
At the time of the blaze, the church property was owned by Steve Slocum. Following the blaze, a social media page devoted to helping Slocum and his family recover from the fire had more than 200 members as of July 6.
Although the cause of the blaze has not yet been determined, nearly every jurisdiction in Clark County had preemptively banned fireworks for the Fourth of July holiday. According to data from CCFR, the department, which covers La Center, Ridgefield, and Woodland as well as unincorporated parts of Clark County in that area, had 21 emergency responses between 7 a.m. on July 4 through 7 a.m. on July 5. That’s more than the 17 responses in the same timeframe in 2020 and 2019.
Nohr said there were a few minor grass and brush fires over the weekend which were mostly related to fireworks, though he noted one response was to an overheated flat tire on a vehicle along Interstate 5. He said during a seven-day period ending July 6, CCFR responded to 124 emergency incidents, more than the usual 65 to 70 incidents in a regular week.
Clark County Fire District 3 had 42 reponses over the weekend, up from 36 in 2020, though district chief Scott Sorenson said it wasn’t related to fireworks.
Although Yacolt saw more visitors in town over the weekend, there weren’t any more fires than during an average year, Clark County Fire District 13 Chief Shaun Ford said.
“Even with the increased number of people it seemed that the total volume of fireworks was less than usual,” Ford wrote in an email to The Reflector.
He said he received social media messages from residents saying they wouldn’t set off fireworks based on temporary bans in other jurisdictions. Yacolt was the only municipality in the county that did not implement a fireworks ban this year.
Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency (CRESA) was inundated with calls during the holiday. A social media post by the agency stated it received close to 1,000 calls on Sunday. The agency had support of volunteers manning the call center to ensure other emergencies received attention as the calls came in.
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