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Fire guts old Baptist Church
Photo by Wayne Nicholls

Fire guts old Baptist Church

Mar 12, 2014 - By Katie Roenigk and Eric Blom, Staff Writers

Blaze kicked up again after earlier firefighting response

An earlier fire reignited just before 9 a.m. Wednesday morning and grew to consume much of a familiar building at 520 E. Fremont Ave. in Riverton.

The Riverton Volunteer Fire Department had responded to a fire at the same address earlier in the morning and left the scene, believing the fire was extinguished.

By noon, firefighters had slowed the smoke coming out of the former First Baptist Church building to a trickle, but not before it had consumed most of the old sanctuary and a smaller brick structure next to it. The fire did not reach an attached stucco apartment structure behind the church.

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The well-known brick building had been turned into a small apartment complex. All residents were able to escape the fire without injury, RVFD assistant chief Scott Walters said.

"We stopped the fire from getting that way more," Walters said, referring to the rear building. "But this church and this home are pretty bad."

The complex's owner used the old church sanctuary for storage, and the side building was an apartment, resident Suzi Eells said. She lives with her husband and two children in one of three apartments in an attached stucco building behind the sanctuary.

Large pieces of furniture were visible through the sanctuary's windows.

"I woke up at about 4:30 in the morning because my husband's cousin came banging on the door saying there was a fire," Eells said. "Everyone got out last night."

The earlier fire was in the central storage area, the same place it resumed burning later, she said.

Original call

Walters confirmed that RVFD responded to a fire call at the building at 4:30 a.m. in the sanctuary portion. He believes it started from a furnace located under a grate in the building's floor.

Firefighters put the fire out and left to put their equipment away, he said. They planned to return in the daylight to complete an investigation.

"There wasn't a lot of material involved," RVFD chief Mike Hutchison said of the initial fire. "It was confined to the floor right around (the heater). There were some things nearby that had also caught fire, and there was some smoke damage from that."

The scene was cleared at about 6:30 a.m., and Hutchison said residents of the apartments on the property were able to return to their homes.

At 8:30 a.m., fire officials stopped by the building to make sure the blaze had not reignited.

"Everything was still cool and appeared to be out," Hutchison said.

Reignition

Jo Fullmer saw the firefighters packing up and leaving at about 6:30 a.m. as she arrived for work at the Department of Family Services office across the street. She saw smoke again billowing out of the sanctuary starting at about 8:50 a.m.

The Riverton Police Department noticed the fire at about the same time.

At 9 a.m., an RPD officer drove by and saw smoke coming from the structure's windows.

"He went to the front door and was able to see some flames inside of ... another room," Hutchison said. "It was not too far away from the original fire, but not in the same spot."

The residents living on the property had left for the day by 9 a.m., he added.

"I don't how it started again," Eells said.

The first fire truck arrived at 9:08 to battle the new blaze, which was pouring smoke out the front door, out windows, and off the roof. Two firefighters attached a hose and sprayed the building while others donned breathing apparatuses and went inside.

"When I arrived a little after 9 (a.m.) there were flames showing," Walters said. "It didn't take long for it to get up into the attic, and it shot across."

Ladder truck

Within 15 minutes, the smoke thickened, and flames started to lick at the roof. A ladder trucked arrived at about 9:30, fixed a hose to a hydrant, and got in position to send a crew up in the air.

As smoke began boiling out of the rear of the sanctuary and spread across the roof, the ladder raised a two-man crew in its bucket over the building. Both firefighters shot a hose down to the sanctuary through a thick tower of smoke.

The bucket men trained their hoses up and down the roof for more than an hour. Between the flame and water pressure d a hole more than 25 feet long and 8 feet wide was created. Eventually, the smoke slowed.

During that time, three more fire trucks arrived, and the fire spread to the apartment on the west side. Just after 10 a.m., the roof of the side structure became engulfed in flame, but fire fighters deluded it with several hoses. When the smoke cleared, the fire was out, but the roof had vanished.

"The whole roof of the house is sitting on whatever's in there," Walters said.

By 10:30, the two sources of smoke slowed to a trickle, but firefighters were still pouring water on the structure. The rear stucco portion did not show signs of fire. Firefighters had wet its exterior thoroughly.

Dozens on scene

At noon, firefighters were taking a break to eat lunch and recuperate. Walters said they had the fire contained and would finish dousing it after the respite.

Walters estimated 45 to 50 firefighters helped fight the blaze with the support of RPD, the Fremont County Sheriff's Office and Fremont County Ambulance Department. Three RVFD trucks and one Fremont County Fire District engine responded.

"We had some collapses, so there's a lot of hot spots covered with debris we're having a hard time getting to," Hutchison said.

He plans to enlist the help of the State Fire Marshal's Office to determine the cause of the blaze, which could be suspicious.

"We haven't ruled (that) out," he said. "We just don't know for sure yet."

County records show the building's owner is Kendra Prucey, of Clovis, N.M.

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