PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — A 3-alarm fire raced through the Portland Korean Church in downtown Portland early Tuesday evening, closing streets in the area and blocking traffic.
Citizens briefly broke into the burning, abandoned church at SW 10th and Clay to look for possible occupants. Firefighters arrived seconds later, shortly after 5 p.m.
Firefighters made steady progress on the fire. Flames at one point were seen billowing from the church’s steeple and eaves. The church has been the scene of several large fires in recent years.
Around 6:30 p.m., PF&R said the main body of the fire was believed to be out and fire hoses were being shut down. “A different suppression strategy” was under discussion.
“It was labeled an unsafe building and those styles of buildings we do not enter. We established a defensive strategy,” said Rick Graves with Portland Fire & Rescue.
While much of the fire impacted the upper portion of the Portland Korean Church at SW 10th and Clay, it’s still unclear what started it. Portland Fire says it was difficult to get to during rush hour traffic downtown but as crews arrived and began to attack from above, the roof was already gone over the main church while flames continued to erupt from the steeple.
“As you can see of the height of that building, the steeple is what, 60 feet or so. and there were concerns that we were going to have structural collapse,” said Graves.
The building was already deemed unsafe for entry by first responders but officials say one week ago, the owner of the church verified with the fire marshal’s office that it was locked up. They believe it was unoccupied at the time the fire broke out and even as they continue to monitor the fire, concerns for a collapse could impact other parts of the neighborhood beyond just the church lot.
“There have been concerns that the structural collapse could take out the aerial power lines from the streetcar, so we’ve got a lot of concerns coming together all at once,” said Graves.
Portland Fire says the flames also spread to a nearby home but have since been put out, though it’s unclear how extensive the damage is.
“There’s a home on the backside that had a little bit of fire on it as well, got on part of the wall, possibly into the attic,” said Graves.
PF&R said five people from the nearby home were displaced.
Investigators are on the scene and at this time, Portland Fire says there are no apparent injuries. They are keeping crews on scene throughout the night to keep water streams going until the morning when the City Engineer can determine if the church is structurally safe.
The intersection of SW 10th and Clay is blocked through Wednesday morning. They’re asking drivers to find alternate routes through the area.
The Portland Streetcar 10th and 11th routes are also closed until Wednesday morning with the eastside being served near the Broadway Bridge to NW 23rd.
Neighbors not shocked
One neighbor named Jake, who told KOIN 6 News he lives across the street from the church, said he noticed the fire when he walked outside to his car.
“I saw flames, there were no trucks or anything. I called 911, I got the machine. No one answered for two or three minutes,” he said. “I figured 100 other people were calling at the same time.”
About a minute later he saw a fire engine arrive.
Rebecca Morgan, who also lives nearby, was upset about the damage the fire caused.
“(The church) is solid wood with all those stained glass windows, which are now gone,” Morgan said. “It’s just a darn shame that something this precious is gone.”
Both neighbors said they were suprised but not shocked by the blaze.
“I was figuring this was bound to happen because there’s been 2 fires here before,” Jake said.