After a fire Sept. 30 at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley, a sign thanks firefighters for their work. Photo: Fred Werner
After a fire Sept. 30 at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley, a sign thanks firefighters for their work. Photo: Fred Werner

By Arielle Gordon-Rowe

Five days after a three-alarm fire tore through the roof of a building owned by the First Congregational Church of Berkeley on 2345 Channing Way, causing an estimated $2 million in damage, the church’s senior minister, Molly Baskette, sat in The Musical Offering Café on Bancroft Way waiting to talk to members of her congregation. Baskette, who only became senior minister at First Church, as it is known, five months ago, has been holding meetings with intimate groups of five to eight people since her arrival, to “really learn their stories on a level of depth and intimacy.”

Wednesday, Baskette was poised, during her regular open office hours, to provide support and answer any questions about Friday’s devastating fire.

“I’m charged with reading the emotional affect of the congregation,” she said. Given that the congregation is very diverse and spans multiple generations, Baskette suggested there was an arc of grief and emotional needs.

There has been an outpouring of support from church members and the greater East Bay community since the fire. Many have asked what they can do to help the institution that has contributed so much to the local community. The church’s website and Facebook page have posted regular updates about the fire and its aftermath — including how it has affected events scheduled on the church campus — and, already, a crowdfunding campaign set up to raise money for the church has raised over $6,000 as this story went to press.

Firefighters battle a three-alarm fire at First Congregational Church, in Berkeley, on Friday, Sept. 30, 2016. Photo: David Yee ©2016
Firefighters battle a three-alarm fire at First Congregational Church, in Berkeley, on Friday, Sept. 30. Photo: David Yee

It was a little after noon that large plumes of billowing smoke were first spotted in Berkeley’s Southside neighborhood. The source was the roof of 2345 Channing, where a fire had taken hold at The First Congregational Church of Berkeley.

After dispatching crews at 12:34 p.m., the Berkeley Fire Department worked quickly to evacuate 97 students and 18 adults from the East Bay School for Boys, which shares its campus with the church. In addition to clearing the church campus, BFD evacuated around 1,400 students from UC Berkeley’s Residential Hall Unit 3 due to smoke in the building, according to Cal. They were not able to return until 10:30 p.m. Friday, according to Deputy Berkeley Fire Chief Donna McCracken.

Crews worked the fire most of the afternoon and into the evening until it was finally declared under control. The blaze caused significant damage to the church structure, which has been an integral part of the local community since the late 19th century, and the smoke cloud it caused was seen by thousands in the area. Traffic was diverted from the area to give BFD space to work, to avoid any accidents due to falling debris, and because of the gallons of water coursing down the street.

Damage inside the Church building. Photo: Ted Friedman
Damage inside the church building. Photo: Ted Friedman

The fire began on the roof of Pilgrim Hall and spread through the attic onto the roof of the sanctuary. A large part of Pilgrim Hall — the two-story portion of the church which houses administrative, educational and performance spaces — sustained significant damage. Firefighters were able to contain the fire before it spread into the entire sanctuary, but the extent of the damage in this space remains to be seen. Loper Chapel and the East Bay School for Boys remain intact, but will be closed until proper safety checks are conducted.

The cause of the fire is under investigation, according to McCracken. Baskette said that when it is deemed safe to reenter, officials will be able to assess the damage, determine whether they will have to raze or rebuild, and estimate a timeline for repairing the sanctuary. The roof of Pilgrim Hall was undergoing repairs, and one possibility is that the fire was related to that work.

First Church — whose impressive sanctuary is used for many local events and whose campus also includes the Cellar Thrift Shop — is a beloved spiritual meeting place that serves the entire East Bay community. As the church writes on its website, it prides itself on its progressive ethos and opens its doors to all, regardless of race, sexual orientation, faith-tradition or politics.

Five days after the fire, the church remains cordoned off with a chain-link fence, and much of the roof of Pilgrim Hall is charred. But the general structure of the historic brick building remains intact and the church steeple stands tall and poised, its striking stature visible from blocks away.

Around 8 a.m. Wednesday, Moe Wright, a contractor and longtime member of First Church, was already at the corner of Channing and Dana in a hard hat, ready to work. Wright and his team were working to assess the damage and evaluate whether the brick of Pilgrim Hall would hold up.

A panorama photo shows the extent of the damage caused by the fire, as well as the water and foam used to extinguish it. Photo: First Church/Facebook

According to Lorenzo Llanillo, a 15-year member of the church congregation, and former youth coordinator there, this proactive, all-hands-on-deck response testifies to the commitment and diversity of the church community. In the wake of the fire, many members of the congregation have already extended a helping hand in different ways.

Llanillo, who works in forensic architecture, was at work when the church caught fire. He said when he heard the news, he had a rush of memories of the past 15 years, and imagined the nursery where his children had gone to daycare burning down. But things have been very hopeful, he said Wednesday. “There has been lots of support in the community.”

While the church was a physical space for the congregation to come together for worship, a church is defined by its people, noted Llanillo. First Church hopes to take this fire as an opportunity to make the physical structure more accommodating to its people, regardless of physical ability or identity. “One of the things we’d like to see in the new plan is more elevators and making sure we have more ‘uni’ bathrooms,” he said.

It’s not the first time the church has caught fire. It suffered two fires during the 1960s, one in 1967 and one in 1978, according to Baskette. “Older members have muscle memory,” she said. Baskette added that she was “amazed” at the calmness, sense of humor and can-do attitude demonstrated in the face of such a shocking event.

Photo shows some of the damage inside the sanctuary at First Church. Photo: Ted Friedman
Photo shows some of the damage inside the sanctuary at First Church. Photo: Ted Friedman

Drones used to detect hot spots

Unlike previous fires, however, last week’s conflagration benefited from some modern technology. The Alameda County sheriff’s office was called to the scene to use an unmanned aerial vehicle, more commonly known as a drone, to capture aerial footage of the fire and search for hotspots. The sheriff’s office has been operating its fleet of around a half-dozen drones for several years, according to agency spokesman Sgt. Ray Kelly. They use the drones for a variety of operations, including capturing images of crime scenes, searching for people during rescue missions and pursuing criminal suspects on the run.

“From a law enforcement first-responder standpoint, drones are revolutionizing the way we are doing our jobs,” said Kelly.

The key, Kelly said, is “not the technology that makes it fly but the camera on it.” Kelly is referring to the thermal-imaging camera attached to the drone which detects hotspots, “saving firefighters a lot of time, guessing and resources.”

“We were really happy that they called us, and our use of the drone greatly helped us in fighting the fire,” said Kelly. “And we are available to any fire department in the Bay Area that wants to use our services.”

Thermal image taken by the drone deployed by the Alameda County Sheriff's Office. Photo: ACSO
Thermal image taken by the drone deployed by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office. Photo: ACSO

The path to restoration

With a view to the long road of rebuilding, First Church has set up a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to restore the damaged portion of the church. Baskette said she is hopeful the church’s insurance would cover the full costs of reconstruction and, if this is the case, First Church would use the GoFundMe money to “pay it forward” to the wider East Bay community. First Church’s website is posting volunteer opportunities and details of an upcoming benefit to support the Wei family who was displaced from their home by the fire. (Frankie Wei is one of the facility’s staff at the church.)

For last Sunday’s service, First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, at 2407 Dana St. across the street from First Church, welcomed the First Church congregation with open arms for worship and a community meal, Baskette said. This coming Sunday’s worship will once again be held there. However, the church council is meeting Thursday to discuss plans going forward and determine where services will be moved over the next few months while the sanctuary is restored.

It’s clear the church’s congregation and friends have rallied to help. “It’s so gratifying to get the generosity of the greater community,” Baskette said. Also speaking on Wednesday, Llanillo said: “Mentally, we are going to rebirth ourselves. This will make us stronger and be something we can grow from.”

For up-to-date information visit The First Church of Berkeley‘s website and its Facebook page.

Update, Oct. 7: A GoFundMe campaign has been launched to raise $20,000 for the Wei family, all of whose belongings were destroyed in the fire. A musical benefit concert is also planned for Oct. 18 at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church to raise funds for unexpected expenses resulting from the fire.

3-alarm fire at First Congregational Church in Berkeley (09.30.16)

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