On The Job: Alaska - Arson Fire Set in Boat Destroys Juneau Church


Chief Eric Mohrmann
Personnel: 33 career firefighters; 75 volunteer firefighters
Apparatus: Five engines, two CAFS engines, two quints, four ALS units
Population: 31,000
Area: 3,248 square miles

On March 12, 2006, an arson fire destroyed a historic 110-year-old church, the church annex and a house in downtown Juneau. The original portion of the Church of the Holy Trinity was built in 1896 of wood construction with vaulted ceilings and a wood-shake roof. An addition, McPhetres Hall, was constructed in 1956 and had a metal roof. The church contained a fire alarm system. Holy Trinity, the second-oldest church in Juneau, was registered as a national historic landmark. The two-story, 1,300-square-foot house was about 80 years old, and was of ordinary construction with an asphalt-shingle roof. The house contained single-station photoelectric and ionization smoke detectors.

The Capital City Fire Rescue Department was dispatched to a reported fire at the intersection of Fourth and Gold streets at 4:40 A.M. Engines 11 and 23, Truck 12 and Medic 1 responded with five firefighters under the command of Captain Keith Walker. Upon arrival, firefighters found a 21-foot fiberglass boat on a trailer, located between the church and the house, fully engulfed, with fire burning on the outside of both exposures. Access to the fire was limited due to a downed live power line and a vehicle parked in front of the boat. Crews advanced a 1 3/4-inch line from Engine 11 to knock down the fire in the boat and the exterior exposure fires. Firefighters also took a 2½-inch line to the doorway of the house and a 1¾-inch line inside. Another 1 3/4-inch line was advanced to the front door of the church.

Fire Chief Eric Mohrmann arrived on scene at 4:56 and assumed command of the incident at 5:01, after conferring with Walker. Mohrmann observed smoke coming from the end gable of the church and the upper gable of the residence. It appeared that the fire had gained entry into the gable of the church and the eaves of the house. He ordered an interior attack on both structures to prevent the fire from spreading inside.

Smoke Explosion

While the attack on the church was being readied, Mohrmann and Walker noticed an individual near the front door of the church with a sleeping bag under his arm. The man rapidly left the area before either fire officer could speak with him. A smoke explosion occurred in the church before the crew was able to make entry that blew out all the windows. A personnel accountability report (PAR) was taken and all firefighters were found to be safe. A 2 1/2-inch blitz line from Engine 11 was set up in the alley to attack the boat fire. Attack crew 1 entered the residential structure and reported fire in the attic. Mohrmann requested additional personnel to the second floor of the residence to pull the ceilings. Attack crew 2, under Walker's command, entered the church and deployed a 1¾-inch line to the farthest point possible in the chapel near the kitchen.

At this time, Mohrmann observed large volumes of black smoke issuing from both end gables under pressure. Smoke was also issuing from the bottoms of the lap siding on the A side and the A-D corner of the church. Believing that the fire was beyond the capabilities of the attack crews, and that a flashover or backdraft was imminent, Mohrmann ordered firefighters to evacuate both buildings. There were insufficient personnel on scene to mount a larger attack, so Mohrmann ordered defensive operations at 5:25. Incident commanders used 4th Street, Gold Street, backyards of houses on the C-D corner, a parking lot and a concrete wall on the C side of the church as fire breaks.

Mohrmann decided to evacuate the rest of block of structures. The Juneau Police Department and firefighters evacuated the buildings. The Bergmann Hotel with approximately 45 guests, a four-unit apartment building with six occupants and 20 homes were evacuated. An evacuation center was set up at the Centennial Hall Convention Center and manned by the South East Alaska Chapter of the American Red Cross.

As the fire continued to engulf both buildings, Engine 11 had to disconnect from its supply line and was repositioned 150 feet up Gold Street to the A-B corner of the church. Portable monitors from Engine 11 were positioned at the B-C corner of the church and the A-D corner of the house. These were supplied by 2 1/2-inch lines from Engines 11 and 23. Firefighters also operated two 2 1/2-inch lines on the A side of the church and house supplied from Engine 11. Two 2 1/2-inch lines were used on the B side of the church, supplied by Engines 11 and 23. A 300-foot 2 1/2-inch line and a 1 1/2-inch line were used on the C-D corner of the house, supplied by Engine 23.

Truck 12 had difficulty in finding a place flat enough to set up the jacks. It was finally positioned at the C-D corner of the residence parking lot and provided a water curtain to protect the exposures on the C side of the house. The aerial was supplied with a five-inch line from a hydrant on Gold Street.

Mohrmann declared the fire under control at 10 A.M. Engine 17, equipped with a compressed air foam system (CAFS), was requested to the scene to assist with overhaul operations. The last firefighters left the scene at 9 P.M. There were no injuries to firefighters or the evacuated civilians.

Forty-two firefighters operated three engines, one truck, two portable monitors and seven handlines to extinguish the fire. The weather was 29 degrees with a wind of less than 5 mph. Bunker gear was freezing and lines were left open to keep them from freezing. The excess water on the roads made walking difficult, as the area is on about a 10% grade. Damage was estimated at $2.6 million. An investigation by Capital City Fire Rescue Fire Marshal Richard Etheridge and Fire Prevention Officer Dan Jager, the Juneau Police Department and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) from Anchorage determined the cause of the fire to be arson. The fire originated in the boat that was parked between the church and the house. Thirteen days after the fire, a 24-year-old suspect was arrested and charged with Arson I and Criminal Mischief I, both Class A felonies. The suspect received first- and second-degree burns.

JAY K. BRADISH/IFPA, Firehouse news editor, is a former captain in the Bradford Township, PA, Fire Department. He has been a volunteer firefighter and fire photographer for more than 25 years.