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Congregations Look To Rebuild As Investigators Ask For Help With Vancouver-Area Church Fires


Fire investigators in Clark County have released photos and videos of a suspect they believe is responsible for a series of arson fires at churches.

Fire investigators released photos and videos of an individual they believe is the suspect in a series of church fires in Clark County last year.

Fire investigators released photos and videos of an individual they believe is the suspect in a series of church fires in Clark County last year.

Clark County Fire Marshal’s Office

More than a year ago, three churches in the area were targeted and intentionally burned, all within the span of a week.

Sixteen months into their investigation, officials announced Thursday they have looked at all possible leads and are now turning to the public for help.

“The public is the key to this,” said Darek Pleasants, special agent in charge of the case for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

“At this point in time, reaching out to the greater region is the way we’re going to move this case forward,” he added.

The suspect is described as an adult male. In the video, he wears a multi-colored baseball hat with the comic-book character Deadpool. If the suspect is found, officials said he could be charged with first degree arson, a class A felony in the state of Washington.

Law enforcement is offering a $20,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and prosecution of those responsible for the fires. Anyone with information is asked to call the Clark County Sheriff’s Office tip line at 1-877-CRIME-11 or the ATF at 1-888-ATF-FIRE.

“Fires are crimes of violence and they must be aggressively pursued,” said Pleasants. “We will continue to work with Clark County in order to apprehend those individuals responsible.”

Clark County Assistant Fire Marshal Curtis Eavenson said they have had the video and photographs since the investigation into the fires began. He said he did not feel comfortable releasing the images to the public earlier because it would have potentially disrupted the investigation.

Fire investigators believe the owner of this multi-colored hat could be involved in a series of arson fires that damaged three churches in Clark County last year.

Fire investigators believe the owner of this multi-colored hat could be involved in a series of arson fires that damaged three churches in Clark County last year.

Clark County Fire Marshal’s Office

“Right now, our best hope is someone will recognize this person,” said Eavenson, stressing that finding the suspect was still a top priority.

“We are as passionate about catching this person now as we were the first day that the fires occurred, and we will continue to pursue every lead that’s developed,” he said. “We will not give up on this case. We will find this person someday.”

The series of fires began in the early morning hours of May 25, 2016. Just before 3 a.m., firefighters received a call to Hazel Dell, where the ark-like roof of the First Congregational Church of Christ had been set ablaze, likely starting from a fire set on the western end of the building.

The following day, another church was burned. This time in Salmon Creek at Liberty Bible Church of the Nazarene.

A few days later, a third fire was reported that damaged a building owned by Daybreak Youth Services in Brush Prairie, a former Bethesda Slavic Church that was transitioning into a youth addiction center.

More than a year later, some of the churches are still trying to rebuild.

Pastor Jennifer Brownell and Ken Rowe in front of the First Congregational Church of Christ in Hazel Dell. In May 2016, it was one of three churches in Clark County that were struck in a series of church arson fires.

Pastor Jennifer Brownell and Ken Rowe in front of the First Congregational Church of Christ in Hazel Dell. In May 2016, it was one of three churches in Clark County that were struck in a series of church arson fires.

Molly Solomon/OPB

“We’re pretty much having to start over from scratch,” said Rev. Jennifer Brownell, senior pastor at the First Congregational Church of Christ. “What wasn’t damaged by the fire was damaged by all the smoke and water.”

Today, the church looks like a space in transition. On a recent morning, construction crews were stretching protective tarp over the chapel’s roof to protect where damaged interior walls and pews had been removed.

Brownell said the congregation has moved to different spaces around Vancouver, even using a backyard space called the labyrinth behind the church this summer.

“We really have been aware, especially this year when we’ve been wandering, how important it is to have space,” said Brownell, “for everybody, not just the members of our congregation.”

Brownell said the whole experience has been trying for the church members, but many remain optimistic as the new building takes shape.

Pastor Jennifer Brownell of the First Congregational Church of Christ in Hazel Dell. In May 2016, it was one of three churches in Clark County that were struck in a series of church arson fires.

Pastor Jennifer Brownell of the First Congregational Church of Christ in Hazel Dell. In May 2016, it was one of three churches in Clark County that were struck in a series of church arson fires.

Molly Solomon/OPB

“There’s just a lot of grief that pops up still,” she said. “But the main feeling has been one of resurrection: that from death comes new life. That’s one of the main important beliefs in our faith.”

The church estimates damage costs at $4 million and hopes new leads in the arson case could finally lead to an arrest.

“Everybody will be happy to hear some kind of development,” said Ken Rowe, who heads communications for the church. “If it leads to an arrest, everybody will give a sigh of relief.”

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