When Clark County Fire Marshal Jon Dunaway thinks about the arsonist — or arsonists — who damaged three local church buildings this past spring, he is met with mostly questions.
Have they completed their mission? Are they just laying low? Have they moved on and left the area? When could this happen again?
“We don’t know the answers to those,” Dunaway said. “Therein lies the frustration and the exposure. … We have a lot of churches in Clark County, and any one of those could be a victim at any time until we catch the person who is responsible.”
The series of arsons began May 25. At about 3 a.m., Vancouver firefighters were alerted to a fire at the First Congregational Church of Christ in Hazel Dell. The blaze nearly destroyed the west steeple of the building, with damage totaling more than $2 million.
While members of the congregation were still wrapping their minds around losing their sanctuary, another church was falling victim to arson.
The following day at around the same time, a fire was reported at Liberty Bible Church of the Nazarene in the Salmon Creek area. Sprinklers doused the flames, reducing the fire damage but causing extensive water damage, investigators said.
Church leaders around the area held their breath, and a few days went by without anything amiss. It wasn’t long before arson struck again, however.
The third fire was reported about 2 a.m. May 29 at 11910 N.E. 154th St. in Brush Prairie. The building is the former home of the Bethesda Slavic Church, which was being converted into an addiction treatment center by Daybreak Youth Services.
In the three months since those church-building arsons, fire and police officials have conducted an investigation that Dunaway calls intensive and detailed.
Authorities got together to form the Church Arsonist Task Force, which includes investigators from the county fire marshal’s office, Vancouver Fire Department, Vancouver Police Department, Clark County Sheriff’s Office and federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
He said the work can be frustrating because most of the evidence is destroyed and the information that comes in is often limited. Even so, Dunaway said the investigation is still going strong.
“We’ve got a great team of folks working on this,” he said. “The leads continue to come in, we follow those, they lead to other leads and we’ll run with those until they’re completely exhausted.”
Dunaway said that hasn’t happened yet. He said that justice for the victims is one of the reasons he and his team are working so hard.
“I think these attacks are very personal to a congregation. It leaves them wondering ‘Why us?’ ” Dunaway said. “It’s not just a building; it’s a community that it impacts.”
Annette Klinefelter, executive director at Daybreak Youth Services, said that is how the organization’s employees reacted to the news.
“It was frightening and disappointing for the staff,” she said. “Ultimately, the staff and the board felt disrespected.”
Klinefelter said she does want the arsonist or arsonists held accountable, but mostly because she wants to make sure that they get the help they need.
The organization was planning renovations when the fire occurred, so the repairs for the $170,000 in water damage from the arson are being rolled into those construction costs, she said.
Damage to the Liberty Bible Church of the Nazarene was more than $360,000, fire officials reported. Church officials said that the repairs to the building have been completed.
Repairs to the most damaged church, the First Congregational Church of Christ, remain at a standstill.
John Greenauer, a congregation member who is leading the repair work, said that crews haven’t been able to do a full assessment of the damage because asbestos was discovered and is being removed. Once that is done, they can move forward with the plan, which is to restore the building to its previous state while also adding sprinklers, he said.
For the first few months, church members met for service at Congregation Kol Ami. Scheduling conflicts moved the congregation again, with services being held at the Luepke Senior Center, 1009 E. McLoughlin Blvd. in Vancouver, this Sunday through the end of the year.
While the arson victims continue to put the pieces back together, Dunaway said investigators will solve the case.
“Time is not your friend in any investigation; memories fade, leads run out potentially,” he said. “We’re just as dedicated to solving it as we were the day they happened, so time is not impacting our resolve. We’re on this and we’re going to find them.”