2 More Churches Go Up In Flames Within 3 Miles Of Each Other

| February 9, 2010

Area firefighters from multiple departments were scrambling to respond to at least two church fires within three miles of each other in Smith County on Monday night — the latest in a rash of East Texas church fires, many of which have been ruled arsons.

Firefighters first responded to a fire at Dover Baptist Church, 21166 Farm-to-Market Road 1995, near the intersection with Texas Highway 110 North, where flames were tearing through the roof about 20 minutes after the first witnesses spotted it. Firefighters from various departments including Lindale, Van, Dixie, Winona and Red Springs were on the scene.

A short time later, a second fire was reported at nearby Clear Springs Missionary Baptist Church on County Road 426, where the structure was fully engulfed. The second fire was three miles west of the first Monday night blaze. Departments including Ben Wheeler, Edom and Van were helping respond to the second fire.

Late Monday night, one of the walls of the church had collapsed and the roof had fallen in at the second church fire.

“We just hope we don't have another fire tonight,” Smith County Fire Marshal Jim Seaton said.

Smith County Assistant Fire Marshal Connie McCoy-Wasson was the first on the scene at Clear Springs Missionary Baptist Church. She said the fire already was coming out of the roof, and she called for immediate back-up. It was evident, she said, that the back door of the church was broken into.

While officials cannot confirm yet that these recent fires also are arsons, Smith County fire officials did say both churches were broken into.

“We've got to catch this guy,” Seaton said.

Dover Baptist trustee Albert Valadez said he received a call shortly after 9 p.m. from a friend, Woody Willard, who first spotted the fire while driving on Texas Highway 110 just a mile south of Interstate 20.

“(Willard) said, ‘There's so much smoke, I can't even see the highway,'” Valadez said.

Although the church fire has not been ruled arson, Valadez said Dover Baptist staff had taken precautionary measures this week as the number of East Texas church arsons continued to climb.

Staff had barred the church doors and even installed “dummy” video cameras above the main doors to hopefully scare off potential intruders.

Pastor Carl Sambles said he believed the fire was centered at the back of the church near the pulpit.

Dover Baptist Church has a congregation of about 50 members.

Brandon Owens, the pastor of Clear Springs Missionary Baptist Church, arrived on the scene late Monday and said, “This is pain.”

Officials said every fire station in Smith County was being manned in case another emergency occurred while this outbreak of fires was taking place late Monday night. Resources from the eastern portion of Van Zandt County also were being sent in to help.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) was on the scene of both fires Monday night.

ARSON INVESTIGATIONS

While teams of local, state and federal authorities look at hundreds of leads in a string of church arsons, several vehicles seen near churches in recent weeks are being checked out to see whether they could possibly be related to the fires.

Tom Crowley, ATF special agent, said investigators have determined the fire that destroyed the Russell Memorial United Methodist Church sanctuary in Wills Point on Thursday was an act of arson.

However, Crowley did not give any further details as to where or how the fire was started.

Earlier church fires were said to have been started with some type of accelerant being used.

The Wills Point fire is the eighth church to burn in East Texas since Jan. 1, but fires in December also are being looked at as is the fire that claimed the First Baptist Church in Temple, which was ruled as arson last month.

The first fire ruled arson was at the Faith Church in Athens on Jan. 1. Then on Jan. 12, the Lake Athens Baptist Church and the Grace Community Church in Athens both burned.

Four days later, the Tyland Baptist Church on Loop 323 in Tyler was torched, and the following night, the First Church of Christ, Scientist on South Broadway Avenue in Tyler burned to the ground.

On Jan. 20, the arsonist struck again at the Prairie Creek Fellowship of Lindale on U.S. Highway 69.

Crowley said the ATF National Response Team is still in the area helping run down the leads being generated through onsite investigations and an East Texas Church Arson Task Force hotline.

“We're following leads and are very active in the area,” he said.

Crowley added that there were several vehicles seen near churches being looked at to see whether they have any connection to the fires.

The vehicles, which have been seen at all times of the day and early morning hours, have been reported as suspicious by residents to police agencies.

“We're looking at multiple vehicles and trying to determine how serious we should take them at this point of the investigation,” he said.

 

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Category: Church Security

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