Fire at Chapel by the Lake could have been much worse

remains of the charred pulpit from Tuesday's suspicious fire at Chapel by the Lake. (Photo by Rosemarie Alexander/KTOO)
Remains of the charred pulpit from Tuesday’s suspicious fire at Chapel by the Lake. (Photo by Rosemarie Alexander/KTOO)

The church still smells a bit smoky, but thanks to members, Cub Scouts and the Boy Scouts, the result of a fire at Chapel by the Lake has been mostly cleaned up.

“It could have been much, much, much worse,” says the Rev. Matt Royston.

He’s thankful the fire didn’t spread beyond the pulpit and a liturgical cloth. The pulpit was built by church members Elwood Reddekopp and Martin Johnson in the early 1970s for the main sanctuary.

Damage is estimated between $3,000 and $5,000. Royston says much of that cost will be cleanup.

“We sponsor the Boy Scout Troop 6 and Cub Scout Pack 6 here at the church and they showed up in force to help us clean up the sanctuary.  It was just wonderful that they did that,” he says.

Royston credits a Goldbelt Security officer for finding the fire at the Auke Lake church.  About 3 a.m. Tuesday, he saw lights on and entered the building. The heavy smell of smoke led him to the sanctuary and the smoldering pulpit. He called the fire department and put out the fire with an extinguisher.

Then he went next door to the parsonage and woke up Royston. Neither the family nor their dogs had heard anything. No fire alarm went off and the smoke did not reach the detectors in the high-ceilinged sanctuary.

“The fire appeared to be burning itself out.  It didn’t get hot enough to consume the pulpit,” Royston says.

Fire Marshal Dan Jager says the fire is suspicious, because investigators have not been able to find a heat source, or where the fire started. But he says it’s too early to call it arson.

“When you label it arson that’s a very specific case, that’s a very specific crime, and we don’t have anything right now saying absolutely it was an arson,” Jager says. “Not to minimize the incident, but to kind of emphasize that we don’t want to go mislabeling things, which could have an impact down the road with court proceedings or other legal issues.”

The building was locked at the time of the fire and the point of entry is not clear.

Juneau police investigators also consider the fire suspicious, but Lt. Dave Campbell says they have no suspects.

“There’s things that we look at. Obviously we do a premises check. We canvass the area inside and outside.  We look for things that are odd.  You know, ways we might be able to tie people to the incident. You talk to the people that found it, try to determine the window of when it occurred,” Campbell says.

Fire Marshal Jager says investigators hope the public might be able to fill in some of the gaps in information about the fire.

The public has been a huge help on fires in the past and we would really hope they would step forward if they have anything.

Church activities have not been interrupted since the small fire.

As for a pulpit for Sunday’s services?  Pastor Royston says a music stand will work just fine.

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