December 31, 2008

36CN: Upper Columbia Conference Fire

Multi-million Dollar Fire Trashes
Upper Columbia Office
No injuries, but bookstore, other offices are destroyed

capAmajor, multiple-alarm fire destroyed nearly two-thirds of the Upper Columbia Conference office, Sunday, December 28. The remaining portion of the building suffered significant smoke and water damage, and it’s expected total damages will run into the millions of dollars.

According to media reports, an investigation into the fire’s cause was to begin December 29.

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ENGULFED: Fire engulfs sections of the Upper Columbia Conference headquarters near Spokane, Washington, on Sunday, December 28, 2008. Two-thirds of the building, including an Adventist Book Center, sustained damage, and the regional headquarters will have to relocate during rebuilding. [Photo: Brian Kleven/UCC].

The blaze began sometime shortly before 5 a.m. in the Adventist Book Center portion of the conference office building. It triggered the building’s fire and intrusion detection system, which in turn notified office manager Bill Skidmore. He arrived at the office around 5:30 a.m. only to find the Spokane Adventist Book Center (ABC) engulfed in flames; fire crews were already at work.

Ironically, Skidmore wasn’t the only conference employee to receive early word of the fire. Herman Schreven, ABC manager, learned of the blaze at 5:15 a.m. when his wife, Sandy, a fire district lieutenant, was paged to respond to the conflagration.

Firefighters faced several challenges. Recent heavy snowfall made working in and around the building challenging. Also, getting sufficient water to fight the fire was an issue, since the building is 3,000 feet from a fire hydrant. In all, help was received from eight fire districts with 55 firefighters and 20 or more fire trucks and emergency vehicles responding to the alarm. This was the most serious blaze in that section of the Spokane Fire District in “quite a long while,” according to Cheney, Washington, Fire Chief Mike Winters, who spoke to the Spokane Spokesman-Review newspaper.

Initially, firefighters hoped to confine the fire to the ABC wing of the office. They were unable to do so and the fire spread to the entire central section of the building. Finally, around 4:30 Sunday afternoon, the fire was stopped at the second firewall.

In spite of efforts to save the building, the Adventist Book Center, the boardroom, central administrative offices, restrooms, assembly room and kitchen, the human resources, ministerial, treasury, and youth departments are complete losses. Still standing are the trust services, communications, information technology, health, and education departments,, KEEH Positive Life Radio and He’s Alive television.


CONFERRING: Spokane County Fire District 10 deputy chief Rod Heimbinger (back to camera) briefs UCC president Max C. Torkelsen II, left, and associate edutcation director James Mason on the blaze. [Photo: Brent Hardinge/UCC].

Also, conference officials were able to preserve important records, said Jay Wintermeyer, UCC communication director: “All the servers were removed from the building before the fire could damage them. In addition, all information was backed up routinely to a site outside of the building. So, all financial records and office files are safe.”

Wintermeyer added that the condition of contents in the three vaults in the building won’t be known until fire officials give permission to reenter the building.

The church’s local Positive Life Radio station, 104.9 FM, and He's Alive TV, UHF Ch. 39, are both off the air due to the fire. Staffers are determining the extent of the damage and hoped to get the stations back on the air within the next few days.

In addition to the media disruptions, the fire temporarily disrupted the office’s phone and Internet services. By Sunday evening the main office phone and fax numbers were rerouted to an offsite location. The conference technical staff has restored normal email service.

The conference office will be closed until further notice. Options are being investigated for possible temporary locations. Ultimately major rebuilding will have to take place, which will undoubtedly take a minimum of 12 to 18 months.

Conference office administration is expected to meet December 29 to put in place short-term contingency plans. The entire conference office staff is due to gather at the Spokane Valley Church the next day to be fully informed and organized to care for on-going continuation of all conference functions.

Max C. Torkelsen, president for Upper Columbia Conference said, “We are extremely grateful that there was no loss of life or even a serious injury in this tragic fire that destroyed most of the office building. Please pray for us as we seek adequate [workspace] housing for the office staff and as we meet the challenges of continuing essential conference services under very difficult circumstances.”

The Upper Columbia Conference is the regional church headquarters for the 25,000 Seventh-day Adventists in the inland Northwestern United States and provides leadership for 30 schools and 117 churches throughout Eastern Washington, Northern Idaho, and Northeastern Oregon.

                                                      — Reported by the Upper Columbia Conference with Adventist Review staff.