March 20, 2011 (Valley Center) – An electrical fire that started in the basement has severely damaged Saint Stephens Roman Catholic Church in Valley Center, causing an estimated $150,000 in damage. County building inspectors have found the structure to be unsafe, requiring immediate stabilization before salvage and repair can begin.
The fire was reported at 5:25 a.m. on March 16th by two early morning joggers, who called 911 after seeing smoke and hearing smoke alarms. Upon arrival, firefighters found smoke billowing from doors, windows and the roof of the parish hall/office building adjacent to the church.
Firefighters from Cal-Fire, Valley Center Fire Protection District, San Diego County Fire Authority, San Pasqual and Pala reservation fire departments responded to the blaze at the church complex, located at 31020 Cole Grade Road. Under direction of Cal-Fire Battalion Chief Ernie Marugg, fire crews from three engines, a ladder truck, light and air unit, and a medic unit, aided at the scene.
The fire had burned from a lower-floor storage area through the ceiling into an upper floor and on up to the attic and roof. Serious smoke, heat and fire damaged the structure and contents.
“The fire also created dangerous operating conditions for firefighters operating in the area of a 10’ gaping hole that burned through floors,” said George E. Lucia Sr., Fire Marshal at Valley Center Fire Protection District. There were no injuries in the fire, which kept firefighters at the scene for seven hours, he added.
As required by regulations covering church fires nationwide, the blaze was investigated jointly by the Valley Center Fire Marshal, San Diego Sheriff Bomb Arson unit and the federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The fire was found not to be suspicious, but appears to be accidental fire from an electrical system, Lucia stated in a press release, though the investigation is continuing.
The complex had passed its annual fire inspection just three weeks before the fire, said Lucia, who attributes the limited fire spread horizontally to good housekeeping by the church parish.