Authorities believe Urbana church fire was arson

URBANA — Firefighters and police in Urbana believe a fire at a church in south Urbana Thursday morning was intentionally set.

Fire Division Chief Brian Nightlinger said firefighters received two calls at 6:37 a.m. about smoke coming from behind the Urbana First Baptist and Midwest Believer Church at 3311 S. Philo Road. Two congregations share the same church space, which is owned by First Baptist, he said.

When they arrived, they found a small fire on an outside wall on the back side of the building, according to Division Chief Russell Chism.

"It started on the outside between two windows and went into the building," said Chism, who said he could smell accelerant.

Nightlinger explained that the fire burned the vinyl siding and flared up toward the soffit then settled back down, burning low on the building. Firefighters had the fire out within minutes, using 2 gallons of water from a pump can.

But Nightlinger said the damage could have been far worse had it burned longer.

"It burned long enough to burn through studs. It got into the structure but not into the attic," he said.

Both division chiefs said there was heavy smoke damage throughout the building. They estimated the dollar loss at $25,000 to $30,000.

"It's fairly clear it's a set fire. It's a matter of pulling all the details together," said Nightlinger, who added that inspectors ruled out an electrical problem.

Chism was at the church investigating most of the morning and called in an accelerant-sniffing dog belonging to state fire marshal investigator Shane Arndt.

Urbana police Lt. Bryant Seraphin was also present and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was also called. Nightlinger said ATF is routinely notified when there are fires at churches.

Anyone with information is encouraged to call Urbana police at 217-384-2320 or Crimestoppers at 217-373-8477.

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