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Bend fires probe: Is arsonist on the loose?

By Barney Lerten
Alicia Inns
Published On: Mar 11 2013 02:02:06 PM CDT
Updated On: Mar 09 2013 09:02:02 PM CST

NewsChannel 21's John Hendricks reports on the latest developments in a string of suspicious fires

BEND, Ore. -

A destructive, unsettling string of fires that heavily damaged two downtown Bend church buildings, two detached garages, two parked cars and a woodpile early Wednesday have fire investigators looking for what happened - and police anxious to know if they are hunting for a serial arsonist.

Authorities were wary late Wednesday of calling the fires arson, or even suspicious, so early in their investigation, but did bring in Oregon State Police, the Oregon State Fire Marshal, the FBI and ATF.

Late Wednesday afternoon, Bend police Lt. Chris Carney listed the locations of the "multiple fire investigation" -- seven separate fires within a three- to four-block area: the Trinity Episcopal Church at 469 NW Wall Street, an adjacent Trinity Episcopal Church building at 231 NW Idaho Avenue (used for the Family Kitchen and a counseling center), detached garages at 236 and 132 NW St. Helens Place, vehicles at 204 and 166 NW St. Helens Place, and a woodpile at 235 NW Jefferson Place.

"It is currently too early in the investigation to know the origin or cause of these fires," Carney said in a news release.

Carney told NewsChannel 21's Matt McDonald live at the scene in our 5 p.m. newscast that they are first making sure the church building is safe to enter, structurally and otherwise, before that phase of the investigation can begin.

Carney said the string of incidents began around 2:10 a.m., when smoke was spotted coming from the Trinity Episcopal Church at the south end of downtown.

Area resident Jeff Holmes called 911 to report the fire.

"I saw a big flash of fire while I was back checking the window," Holmes said. "And I thought maybe the Family Kitchen was on fire, because it was coming off that window, but it was just the reflection. When I came back around, the door was open on this side, the smoke was really coming out -- and I didn't have to hesitate to call 911 then."

Fire crews arrived to find smoke billowing from an open door at the church and sparks coming from the roof of that building and the church's second, adjacent facility, initial reports indicated.

Police called to the scene also said rocks apparently had been thrown through the church's windows.

The fire left a gaping hole in one wing of Trinity Hall, the original part of Trinity Episcopal Church, a Gothic-style church built in 1929 that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The church's adjacent building, at 231 NW Idaho Avenue, which sustained less serious damage, is St. Helens Hall, a former Lutheran church that now serves as home to the church's Family Kitchen and Child and Family Counseling Center.

As the number of fire reports mounted, Fire officials called in a Central Oregon structural protection task force, reporting a total of five structure fires at that time.

Fire crews from as far away as La Pine and Redmond were called in, as well as others from the Sisters, Cloverdale, Black Butte Ranch and Sunriver fire departments, both to relieve Bend crews and also help staff fire stations.

New snowfall also challenged the called-in fire crews. A Sisters fire captain said they had to drive close to 20 mph at times for safety reasons.

Larry Medina, Bend's deputy chief of fire prevention, confirmed there were no reports of any injuries.

Pacific Power and Cascade Natural Gas crews were called in to help get lines shut off in the area, and the Red Cross was called in to assist affected residents.

Numerous streets in the south end of downtown Bend and the adjacent Old Town neighborhood were closed for hours for the fire cleanup and investigation. They reopened later in the morning, with yellow tape cordoning off the fire-stricken church structures and other locations.

Medina said roads had been closed from Louisiana Avenue on the north to Georgia Avenue on the south and to Broadway Street to the west.

He asked that anyone with information that could help in the investigation contact Bend police through Deschutes County dispatchers at (541) 693-6911.

The Family Kitchen canceled their Wednesday lunch due to the power being out, while the Deschutes Public Library across Wall Street opened up some conference rooms for space to hold counseling meetings.

The regular Thursday dinner is still planned, but at nearby First United Methodist Church. If you want more information or care to help, e-mail info@familykitchen.org.

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