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

CAPITAL CITY FIRE RESCUE DEPARTMENT 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...


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CAPITAL CITY FIRE RESCUE DEPARTMENT

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.

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