A pair of arsonists set fire to a 12-foot-high cross in front of Zion Lutheran Church early Friday morning, an act that will bring federal agents into the investigation.
After the cross ignited, the blaze spread up the side of the church building and into its rafters before fire crews extinguished it.
A serial arsonist is suspected of setting fire to another vacant home in west Medford early Friday, the latest in a string of dozens of fires believed to have been set by the same individual since April 2012.
The fire was reported at 4:19 a.m. in the 1700 block of West Main Street, with reported heavy smoke and fire pouring from the back of the home.
“The whole back of the house was pretty much engulfed in flames,” said Medford Fire-Rescue battalion chief Ken Goodson.
Crews responded with four engines and 14 firefighters. Officials said the blaze was under control in about 10 minutes.
“We were able to get it pretty fast, actually,” Goodson said.
Debris is believed to have been set on fire inside the vacant home, a similar method to dozens of other fires in vacant homes reported in west Medford since April 2012, with damages approaching $500,000. The string of incidents has so far stumped authorities.
“We’re still trying to figure that guy out,” said Lt. Mike Budreau of Medford police.
— Ryan Pfeil
"That whole area right in there was burning," said Medford Fire-Rescue Battalion Chief Ken Goodson.
Medford fire crews first responded to the church fire, in the 500 block of West Fourth Street, just before 2 a.m. The fire started outside the building in a vegetation plot that had a large wooden cross at its center.
Witnesses reported seeing two males throw something similar to a Molotov cocktail at the cross in front of the church before fleeing.
"Something was thrown at it which caused it to immediately ignite," said Lt. Mike Budreau of Medford police.
The fire spread from its point of origin, shooting up into the building rafters where there is a vaulted ceiling, fire officials said.
"It went up the front of the building and into the roof," Goodson said.
There was a full structure response to the incident, with four engines, a ladder truck and 18 firefighters. Crews had the exterior blaze under control within a few minutes, but the inside fire was more challenging, as it was in an area that was difficult to access. Crews had to utilize the help of a 35-foot ladder to attack the remaining flames. The pews had to be shoved to the front of the church during firefighting efforts.
"We were chasing it inside for probably an hour," Goodson said. "The whole church was full of smoke. There's smoke damage throughout the church."
Budreau said police will coordinate with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives on the case, as setting fire to a church can be prosecuted as a federal crime.
"It will be a joint investigation," Budreau said. "If an arrest is made, they would have the option of prosecuting (the suspects) federally."
Colene Domenech, supervisor with the arson and explosives group in the ATF Portland field office, said the ATF's involvement stems from the fire being at a religious institution that could be involved in charities whose services cross state lines.
"If it's a commercial fire, school or business, and it affects interstate commerce, we can prosecute them federally," Domenech said. "Residential fires typically don't have that interstate commerce effect to them."
She added ATF agents typically work with county district attorney's offices to push for the maximum penalty, which is dependent on a defendant's criminal history and the crime's severity.
"The whole premise is putting state, city and federal resources together," Domenech said. "We're just bringing our resources and help."
The incident remains under investigation by police and fire agencies. No suspects have been identified and no arrests have been made. Debris peppered the church's interior Friday, with thick scorch marks tracing patterns in the ceiling.
"This is just off the wall," said John Winkler, church council president, as he looked over the damage Friday, adding a current damage estimate is somewhere around $200,000. "It's a major struggle."
Winkler said he could not think of any previous violent acts or threats at the 110-year old building.
The church is insured, but there is no word yet on how long rebuilding will take. Until then, the church's services will be moved into its nearby parish hall.
"We're not out of business, not by a long shot," Winkler said.
Chad McComas, pastor at nearby Set Free Fellowship, said the news was distressing, especially because of the amount of work Zion Lutheran has done with people in the surrounding west Medford neighborhoods. Their programs include a 12-step addiction program, which meets several nights a week, and a food pantry.
"Churches on the west side definitely are working with people in the trenches. I know that Zion Lutheran has done a lot of good with the community," McComas said. "It's going to be a tough thing on them. It saddens me."
Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.