A three-alarm fire broke out at Berkeley’s First Congregational Church on Channing Way on Friday.
The fire was determined to be under control about 3:20 p.m., according to Berkeley Fire Department Chief Gil Dong, though firefighters were still pumping water onto the building about 4:30 p.m. The fire caused structural weaknesses, including an untethered chimney and damaged exterior walls, Dong said.
Visibility on the 2300 block of Channing Way was incredibly low as smoke billowed from the building, located at 2345 Channing Way, beginning about 12:30 p.m. Its roof had collapsed as of 1:50 p.m.
“It looked really containable at first, like it was 1 square foot, and then it quickly spread to the entire building,” said UC Berkeley sophomore Stephanie Miller, who lives at the nearby Rochdale Village on Haste Street. “One second it’s on fire, and then 45 minutes later, it’s halfway burned down to the ground.”
The Berkeley and Oakland fire departments responded to the incident, with about 60 firefighters on the scene, according to Dong. The fire mainly affected the church’s office and classroom spaces, he said, but BFD was able to prevent the fire from spreading to the church’s auditorium.
“Right now, we think we got most of the fire knocked out, but we still know there are some hot spots” in the building, Dong said about 3 p.m., adding that BFD would remain in the area throughout the night.
The cause of the fire is still unclear, but firefighters at the scene said work was being done on the roof before the fire broke out. There is no indication that the fire is gas related, according to PG&E spokesperson Tamar Sarkissian. Firefighters will begin investigating the cause of the fire once remaining hot spots in the building are extinguished and structural engineers have assessed the integrity of the building, Dong said.
The 94 children and 14 staff members of the church’s daycare are safe and were relocated to the Berkeley City Club on Durant Avenue during the fire, according to Dong.
Residents of campus’s Unit 3 were evacuated. As of 7 p.m., residents were cleared to return to Beverly Cleary Hall, according to UCPD Sgt. Nicole Miller. The rest of Unit 3 was reopened by 9 p.m.
The First Congregational Church has owned the lot since the 1870s, and the complex dates back to 1925, according to Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association President Steve Finacom. In 1942, during Japanese-American internment, Japanese residents were instructed to report to city fire stations, but the church offered to take them in instead, Finacom said.
The church has endured two other major fires in the past, one in the 1960s and one in the 1970s, according to church young adult minister Kit Novotny. The fire in the 1970s damaged the north part of the building, which was subsequently remodeled, Finacom said.
“I’m obviously heartbroken,” Novotny said. “My colleague, who’s one of the other pastors … immediately said, ‘The church is the people, not the building.’ ”
UC Berkeley freshman Alexander Liu, a member of The Daily Californian’s business staff, was working at Café 3 when the fire broke out, originating near the church’s chimney. He said Café 3 staff was evacuated from the building and relocated to Crossroads about 1:10 p.m.
“The smoke was just pouring in from the vents,” Liu said. “I was just praying in the back of my mind that nobody got injured.”
No civilian injuries have been reported, Dong said. One firefighter — whose condition is unknown — had to be removed from the building, according to BFD Deputy Fire Chief Donna McCracken.
At about 3:30 p.m. the Red Cross arrived on scene to supply water and food to those affected by the fire, according to the Red Cross’ Susan Zima.
The intersection of Channing Way and Dana Street will be closed Saturday, Dong said, affecting expected traffic in the area for the Homecoming football game. He added that BPD and city officials will coordinate placing advisories in the area to divert traffic.
“The church has endured multiple severe fires in its history, and it’s part of its identity,” Novotny said. “It has risen from the ashes before.”
Check back for updates.