PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — An old church and house in unincorporated Clark County were destroyed in what is believed to be a human-caused fire early Monday.
According to Clark-Cowlitz Fire Rescue, crews responded to a report of an old, repurposed church on fire at 24209 NE 92nd Avenue around 2:30 a.m. A neighbor across the street heard an explosion before looking outside and seeing the property — reportedly known for its clutter — was suddenly ablaze.
Steve Slocum, who lived in the old church with his sister, his nephew and his family, could only watch what unfolded after they heard a loud bang around 2:30 a.m.
“You know, kinda didn’t think much of it. Startled me,” Slocum told KOIN 6 News. “I went in the house and sat down on the couch. A couple minutes later, Nick comes running in and says, ‘Call 911. The church is on fire.”
Slocum said he tried using a fire extinguisher but the flames were too big, engulfing the 1910 church and the parsonage.
The second story of the church and the steeple were both fully engulfed by flames within minutes. Meanwhile, the fire was growing threateningly close to the house next door. Although firefighters tried to make an interior attack, the intensity of the flames and heat made it impossible.
His neighbor has surveillance video of someone starting the fire.
“A car coming by and then coming back by and stopping, jumping out,” he said. “And you can see a person lighting it, chucking it over and it blowing up.”
Fire investigators have the video and are working with the Clark County Sheriff’s Office.
CCFR says extreme clutter in and around the church made their task even more difficult. Hundreds of mannequins were reportedly posed throughout the property. Fire Chief John Nohr said those mannequins and other items kept the crews from getting through the area and being able to stretch hose lines.
Steve bought the buildings 7 years ago from a man who ran it as an astronomy store. It became more of a local attraction when Slocum began creating mannequin displays.
“All those years where I had to be a normal person in society, I just decided, you know, hey, I’m going to be a little bit weird,” he told KOIN 6 News.
It’s those displays that made it difficult for firefighters to do their jobs.
The decision was then made to switch to a defensive tactic and additional resources were called in.
However, the fire ultimately spread to the house next to the church and to the sheds in the backyard. At one point, flames started venting from a 200-gallon propane tank that was near the back wall of the church — causing what CCFR called a “large fire ball” until the tank ran out of propane over an hour later.
Although the bulk of the blaze has now been knocked down, fire crews will remain on the scene to mop up any hot spots throughout the day, ensuring it is fully extinguished. A total of 42 fire personnel assisted in the efforts.
The investigation is ongoing, but authorities believe this was a human-caused fire. Security footage from a neighbor shows a vehicle pulling up to the old church and throwing possibly flaming material at the church from the vehicle before speeding away.
No one was injured in the fire.
The apparent arson is “a lot of things,” he said. “It’s a lot of things I can’t say on the phone. But, yeah, it’s really messed up.”
Slocum said he doesn’t know where he’s going to live. But he’s most disturbed by losing all his family photos, including those he inherited from his grandmother.