Fire Damages Vacant Downtown Church

Photo: Greg Muhr, PF&R

Just before 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Portland Fire Dispatch Center tapped out a single alarm fire at the corner of SW 10th and SW Clay St. There were reports that fire was pushing out of a church located at the intersection and that the flames were impinging up against the home to the east of the building. The three-story wooden 3000 square foot church with an additional 35 feet of steeple raising nearly 70 feet in the air was built in 1905 and served a Korean congregation during the time of use. It was currently unoccupied and not actively in use.

The address of this building is well known to Portland Fire & Rescue as a fire at this location, in September 2020, damaged the interior to the degree there remains holes in the floors today. The Fire Preventions Division has labeled this building unsafe for entry and the building specialist has worked proactively with the owner to make sure the church is closed and secure with all lower-level windows and doors boarded over to prevent undesired entry. This building and other similar unsafe structures are regularly checked by PF&R Preventions Specialist with the most recent evaluation of the church being last Friday, December 30, 2022. 

The unsafe status of the building was communicated by both responding chiefs and prepared crews for a defensive fire attack, where large hose streams from aerial and exterior operations are employed to put copious amounts of water on the fire without putting anyone in danger on the inside of the building. This information instructed all responding crews to prepare to connect to many different hydrants and supply the large streams from the responding ladder trucks and available engines.

Street progress to the fire for all responding apparatus was difficult and slow with the rush hour traffic affecting their speed of travel. The first arriving crews confirmed heavy fire with flames impinging on a neighboring home. This engine operated a protection hose line which is intended to cool the flames and prevent the fire from pushing into the neighboring structure, which in this case was 10’ away. This engine was on the Clay Street side to the East of the church operated a large hose line and stopping any fire spread to the interior of the home. Given the large body of fire in the church, this small distance is easily spanned, and the initial efforts saved this home.

As this engine worked on protecting the neighboring home, the remainder of the responders connected to hydrants and supplied the aerial truck operations. With the fire growing rapidly a second and third alarm were added to bring more available working bodies to the scene. In total, twenty crews responded placing 80 firefighters to work at the incident.

The fire grew aggressively in the church as the crews set up their trucks. When all trucks were in place, the large amounts of water used affected the stability of the structure. Walls bulged and leaned due to fire damage combined with the water flow. This forced a few of the apparatus on scene to reposition to be safely out of the collapse zone. 

This concern of building collapse forced the firefighters on the inside of the neighboring home to withdraw from the structure for safety. Before they exited, they attached an open hose line on the inside of the home flowing water out of the window into the church. This was an unmanned hose line able to reach the fire easily throughout the remainder of the incident.

As time went by, the bulk of the fire was suppressed by the four ladder trucks operating their master streams along with teams of firefighters working to man large handlines from a distance. With the many large bore water streams entering through the damaged roof from above or through windows and other openings from ground operated hand lines, the firefighters gained control of the fire spread in the church. With much of the fire eliminated an hour into the incident, command had all water streams stopped to see if we needed to continue to operate with all four trucks and any of the crews on the ground. After a period with no real fire growth the decision was made to release crews from the scene. With many engines pumping to trucks and thousands of feet of hose on the ground, picking up and getting crews cleared took some time. The decision was made to call the incident controlled with 2 trucks and 2 engines remaining. There will be different crews rotating through the night on fire watch to operate the water flow all night long. 

The structural stability of the building will be evaluated by the City Engineer in the morning to determine the safety of the structure. The height of the steeple is such that a collapse would potentially reach the overhead powerlines that serve the Portland Streetcar. The extended fire suppression along with the potential of collapse with have a significant impact on travel in this area at least through mid-day tomorrow. There will be no vehicle or pedestrian traffic on Clay from 11th to Park and travel will also be limited on 10th between Columbia and Market. The Portland Streetcar will be servicing their routes using busses as this section will be closed at this time. Please plan accordingly given the road closures. Portland Fire & Rescue will be working in conjunction with PBOT to open the roads as soon as it is safe for travel.

There were no reported injuries on scene. There will be five residents of the neighboring home displaced. The Fire Investigations Unit was on scene and will be to begin evaluating the building to determine a cause and the investigation will resume in the morning.

Portland Fire and Rescue would like to thank our partners at BOEC and PBOT for their assistance in managing this event. We would also like to acknowledge to work performed by members of the Portland Fire Logistics Division Apparatus Maintenance Crew who responded to the scene with fuel and DEF to be sure the engines and trucks operate successfully through the night.

Source: Portland Fire & Rescue

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