Fire at vacant church called suspicious

vpatton@mercedsunstar.comJanuary 29, 2013 

A fire at the vacant Sierra Presbyterian Church in north Merced late last week is being called suspicious by investigators, Fire Chief Mike McLaughlin said Monday.

McLaughlin stopped short of saying it was arson, but added that investigators have ruled out any possible electrical factors as potential causes.

He added that federal officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are assisting with the investigation to try to determine the cause of the Thursday morning fire.

"Unfortunately, we can't expand on it much more at this point, because it is an ongoing investigation," McLaughlin said.

No injuries were reported in the blaze, reported at 4:47 a.m., at the church at 3603 M St.

Firefighters saw flames coming out of the west side of the building when they arrived. The fire, which burned two classrooms, was contained within 30 minutes, McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin said firefighters got a handle on the fire just in time, because it was minutes from being a "catastrophic" blaze. Firefighters estimate the fire caused about $160,000 in damage.

McLaughlin said the building is salvageable.

Twenty-five firefighters responded to the blaze. The Merced Fire Department sent five engines and a truck. Two engines from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection responded.

The church became a subject of controversy in 2011 after several homeless people set up camp there. Prior to that, city officials had removed the homeless from a large encampment near Black Rascal Creek and Bear Creek.

After the homeless were removed from the Black Rascal Creek area, a handful were offered a place to stay at Sierra Presbyterian Church.

Church elders later asked the homeless to leave because they no longer could manage the property. Although some of the homeless filed a lawsuit, attempting to be allowed back onto the property, they eventually had to pick up their belongings and move elsewhere.

McLaughlin said there's no evidence anyone was staying at the church property when Thursday's fire happened.

City Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsunstar.com.

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