Fire devastates Sweet Home Fir Lawn church

Arson suspected in early Saturday morning incident

Police and fire officials are looking into whether a fire that destroyed much of the Fir Lawn Lutheran Church building early Saturday morning, Feb. 25, was the result of arson.

The blaze was reported shortly before 1:30 a.m. According to the Sweet Home Police Department, responding officers arrived to find the building fully engulfed in flames.

Flames and smoke pour from the foyer area as firefighters arrive. Courtesy of the Sweet Home Fire & Ambulance District

Sweet Home Fire and Ambulance District Chief Nick Tyler said he believed a neighbor reported the blaze after hearing glass breaking in the middle of the night and saw flames coming from the building.

Firefighters who arrived on the scene found the foyer area of the building fully engulfed.

Once on scene, the Sweet Home Fire and Ambulance District incident commanders requested a second-alarm assignment, hailing assistance from Halsey, Brownsville and Albany. Lebanon could not respond, due to a separate structure fire within its own district.

Battalion Chief Randy Whitfield said when he arrived flames were “blowing out of the foyer area.”

“It was pretty well involved, real hot,” he said.

Crews battled the fire with “significant effort,” bringing it under control within an hour, according to the Sweet Home agency. Personnel remained at the scene for roughly 3½ hours.

A total of 23 firefighters responded to the incident with 10 fire apparatus, including five engines and a ladder truck.

No injuries were reported, but damage to the church was severe.

Whitfield estimated that the damage figure hovers around $1 million.

“The sanctuary took a significant amount of heat,” he said. “It was really fortunate that it didn’t catch fire.”

Flames pour from the foyer area of the church building. Courtesy of the Sweet Home Fire & Ambulance District

That part of the building was preserved by the fact that the sanctuary doors, which had started to burn through when firefighters got water on the scene, had started to burn through.

But the heat and smoke damage, Whitfield said, will likely require that the contents of the sanctuary will need replacement.

The door to a classroom off the foyer was open, and that room sustained a lot of damage.

“It was pretty bad in there.”

Police said that preliminary evidence suggested the fire was intentional, resulting in an arson investigation in collaboration with the city fire department, the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s Office and the Oregon State Police Arson Unit.

Tyler said he couldn’t give details – “We’re not releasing a lot of information yet,” but he said “irregularities were found by first-arriving battalion chiefs that led to the need for further investigation.”

Investigators from those agencies converged at Fir Lawn Saturday and an investigation is under way.

Tyler said Monday he had heard from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which “has reached out and will provide support as well. We expect them to come down.”

He said he hoped to have some results of the investigation later this week.

Smoke pours from what used to be the foyer windows and, right, seeps from the sanctuary eaves. Courtesy of the Sweet Home Fire & Ambulance District

Sweet Home Police Chief Jason Ogden said Capt. Ryan Cummings and Detective Geoff Hamlin are working on the case, trying to develop leads.

He encouraged area residents to check their home surveillance systems and contact police with relevant footage.

“It’s definitely suspicious,” he said. “We’re dedicating resources to try to see if we can develop any leads.”

He said officers are “canvassing” the area to see if they can locate any pertinent video surveillance.

“The big thing for people who live in that area, if they have video surveillance, anything from that time of the morning that might be helpful, call us.”

Hamlin and Cummings can be reached at (541) 367-5181.

Tyler said that a steady stream of local residents stopped by the scene as investigators we working Saturday.

“People started coming up, telling us how their parents got married here, how this happened here. It was extremely evident, the impact this had on the community. The mayor, the city manager, everybody stopped by. It was pretty devastating.”

Patty Holk, a spokesperson for the church, said the outpouring of support from the community has been “incredible.”

A box of burned booklets sits on the ground outside the church following the firefighting effort. Photo by Scott Swanson

The congregation has dwindled and the current membership is just under 30, she said. The most recent pastor, Joe Medley, retired at the end of 2021 and a rotation of visiting ministers have led services since, she said.

Fir Lawn members were able to meet Sunday morning at Sweet Home United Methodist Church, which also has offered office space, she said.

“We can have our Bible study, our sewing group and other programs at the Methodist church until we get our brains together,” she said.

She said the fire was “horrifying,” but each day gets a little better.”

“The building is a total mess,” she said, noting that the basement area only suffered smoke damage, so should be able to be cleaned up and put back in service.

“Downstairs is usable more than anything. It’s just a cleaning process.”

The foyer and offices were destroyed and the sanctuary, where services are held, was heavily damaged by smoke and heat, Holk said.

Studs and a door into the foyer stand charred by the fire. Photo by Scott Swanson

We’re talking to the insurance and cleanup people. It will be a few weeks before we can get access to the building. We’re just thinking mentally of where we start, how we get going. Action is going to take place for some time.”

Holk said she wasn’t sure when the church was actually built, but she said it’s about 70 years old. She said firefighters told her the structure had been well-built.

“It has the most incredible wood,” she said. “It was built in a time when timber was king.”