A fire reported at north Merced's Sierra Presbyterian Church is being called suspicious by investigators, Chief Mike McLaughlin said Monday.
McLaughlin stopped short of saying arson is responsible for the fire, which happened Thursday morning, and said investigators have ruled out any possible electrical factors.
He added federal officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are assisting with the investigation, to determine the cause. "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 vacant 3603 M St. church.
Firefighters responded and saw flames emanating from the west side of the building, and smoke rising from cracks and openings. The fire, which burned two classrooms, was contained within 30 minutes, McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin said the firefighters addressed the fire just in time, saying it was minutes from being a "catastrophic" blaze. Firefighters estimate the blaze caused around $160,000 in damage, and McLaughlin said the building's still salvageable.
A total of 25 firefighters responded to the blaze. Merced Fire Department sent five engines and a truck. Two engines from Merced County Fire Department/Cal Fire also responded.
The church became a subject of controversy in 2011 after several homeless people had set up camp there. Prior to that, city officials had moved 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.
Eventually, the church elders asked the homeless to leave because they could no longer 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 that 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.