Fire damages south Modesto church

Elizabeth Reyes lives in Riverbank but makes the trip a few times a week to her church in south Modesto.

"This church means the life to me," said the Sunday school teacher at El Buen Samaritano, where she's been a member since she moved here from Mexico City in 1984.

Tuesday afternoon, she expressed sadness, disappointment and some anger as she assessed the damage from a fire that hours earlier tore through the two-story church at 529 Rio Grande Ave., just west of Highway 99 near Hatch Road.

The fire, reported just before 2 a.m., was called "suspicious in nature" by Sean Slamon, acting division chief of the Modesto Fire Department. It was the third — and by far the most damaging — fire nearby early Tuesday.

When firefighters arrived at the church, they found much of the front portion of the building engulfed in flames, some of which shot through the roof.

Crews put the fire out in 20 minutes and contained the damage from the two-alarm blaze to roughly 25 percent of the building. But other damage — a hole in the roof, smoke-stained pews and windows, and ash and soot seemingly everywhere — painted a grim picture by afternoon.

Damage was estimated at $150,000, according to Slamon. Nobody was in the church at the time, and no firefighters were injured.

Two blazes nearby

Fire crews earlier had extinguished a rubbish fire and a fence fire near Hatch Road west of the freeway before being called to the church.

Slamon said the fire does not appear to be a hate crime. But he said investigators have not been able to rule out arson, adding that they have identified one or possibly two individuals who may be responsible.

He said the fire appears to have originated inside the church.

Two trucks, five engines and a battalion chief were called in, for a total of 24 crew members.

Reyes said a lot of work was put into the church over the years to make it a comfortable place for its more than 100 members, including her two daughters. She's there for Sunday school and services, Bible study on Tuesdays, Friday nights and other days for prayers and events.

Tuesday, passers-by stopped to look at the damage, and a few church members congregated in the shade in a parking lot where four scorched pews sat. Meanwhile, some board members were meeting in the office across the parking lot from the church to discuss what to do next.

"I feel so sad," Reyes said. "How could they do this? Maybe they don't like churches. I don't know what to say."