Friday, March 23, 2007

Fire In The Chapel, Flood In The Temple: Latter-Day Saints Take A One-Two Punch In Anchorage, Alaska In Just 24 Hours

Special Note: Post updated on March 24th at 7:40 P.M. with new information, posted in green.

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) in Anchorage, AK, took a major one-two punch during the past 24 hours as first the chapel on South Brayton Drive caught fire, losing most of the roof, and then the adjoining temple flooded. There appears to be an unintentional connection between the two events. This is a composite post summarizing reports from all local media outlets, including the Anchorage Daily News, KTUU Channel 2 (fire and flood), KTVA Channel 11 (fire and flood), and KIMO Channel 13.

Another good source of information can be found on the Scribbit Blog, edited by a member of the ward affected by the fire. Her post includes a video of the fire.

Approximately 3:30 A.M. on Thursday, March 22, 2007, people living near the LDS church-temple complex on South Brayton Drive smelled smoke. Upon investigating, they saw smoke and flames emanating from the LDS chapel at the site.

Firefighters responded, but after some initial success, the flames shot up again. Ultimately, it took 12 hours for firefighters to bring it under control. About half the firefighters on duty in the city, 60 to 70 of them, rotated in at different times during the day to fight the fire, which burned inside the roof from a place not easily reached. Firefighters found it necessary to pour water on the flames from atop ladders extended above the blaze. At midafternoon, thick gray smoke still filled the neighborhood, and firefighters were shooting streams of water onto the roof from the tops of two ladder trucks. So much water had been poured onto the structure that the air was moist, and the Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility (AWWU) had to boost the water pressure. This latter decision would prove to have unanticipated and fateful consequences for the adjacent temple later on.

The fire appears to have started in the heating and ventilation room near the top of the structure and is believed to have been accidental. Fire Department spokesman Tom Kempton said it was the largest, toughest fire here in recent memory. Firefighters had to let most of the roof burn through before they could get to the flames. “You almost have to peel back the roof to be able to extinguish the fire”, said Kempton

The roof was a big, heavy structure, with beams overlaid by wood planks, then layers of foam insulation, more planking, plywood, then the roofing material.

The 18,000 square feet meetinghouse not only contained a chapel, but also a multipurpose room and a bank of classromms. No one was injured or killed in the blaze. While the roof is destroyed and debris collapsed into the chapel and the multipurpose room, much of the exterior and the classrooms wings are still intact, incurring mostly water damage. The building was about 30 years old and is self-insured by the church. Church leader Mel Nichols estimated damage at approximately $2.0 million and said it might take a minimum of $2.5 million to replace it, not counting any demolition. Ironically, this is the second fire at this facility - in 1976, while it was intially under construction, a different fire gutted it. A news report at the time said the damage was estimated at $1.2 million. At that time, it took a year to rebuild. On later media reports, church officials indicated a greater intent to rebuild rather than completely demolish the structure after the latest fire, but estimated it would take a year.

The adjacent temple, a more sacred building accessible only to church members certified spiritually worthy by their local bishops/branch presidents and issued temple recommends, was untouched by the flames, since it is south of the chapel and the wind was blowing from the south.

An estimated 1,600 members attended services at this chapel, organized into four separate wards with separate meeting times. Several congregations customarily share one chapel in order for the LDS church to save money. The initial plan is for the four congregations to double up with those using the Strawberry Road meetinghouse; however, if that proves too burdensome, there are also additional meetinghouses on Baxter Road and Maplewood Drive to share the load. KIMO also reported that the church may even consider renting separate meeting space elsewhere if necessary.

The basic unit of organization in the LDS church is the stake. A stake normally consists of 8-12 wards. Wards normally have 300-500 members and are formally divided once they reach 600 members or more. Wards are kept relatively small in order to provide ample leadership and service opportunities for as many active members as possible. Visit the LDS Church's official website at or their informational site at for more information about church doctrine and activities.

When AWWU increased the water pressure on Thursday to enable firefighters to fight the chapel fire more vigorously, it set off a ticking time bomb that "detonated" 24 hours later when, on Friday at 1:00 P.M., church leaders got a low-water pressure alert from an automated system in the adjacent temple building. When church officials arrived, they found water streaming out the door, three to five feet of water in the basement, and the cap for the water line laying on the floor.

Church officials said they believe a six-inch high-pressure water line burst in the basement. Firefighters responded to help pump thousands of gallons of water out of the building. In some areas the water was three to five feet deep.

"The fire is a totally separate issue, there's no relationship with the water main breaking. In due time, the chapel will be rebuilt, the temple, we'll mainly need to pump the water out," said Mike Novakovich, Alaska LDS Temple president. However, the Scribbit Blog speculates that when AWWU turned up the water pressure the previous day, it may have put too much pressure on the temple's water line, causing the cap to fly off and the flood to ensue.

Church leaders said from what they can tell so far, water damage appears to be confined to the basement and entryway of temple. This is the only LDS temple in the entire state and church leaders said until further notice all temple services have been canceled. LDS members requiring temple ordinances during the interim most likely will use the nearest facility in Seattle. However, the temple is expected to be returned to service much sooner than the adjacent chapel. It may have to be re-dedicated, which generally means an open house for the general public to take a tour before dedication.

The Scribbit Blog also revealed that the church has received offers of assistance from several local sources, most notably the Catholic Archdiocese of Anchorage. A more recent post on the Scribbit Blog, which also shows pictures of the damage, discloses specific offers of assistance tendered by Abbott Loop Community Church and Anchorage's Chapel-By-The-Sea. In addition, Cal Worthington Ford has apparently offered warehouse space for storage and the use of a truck to haul away items. I think I'll remember that last factoid next time I go vehicle-shopping, even though I prefer Chevy.


  1. Did you suggest they move into the empty Northernlights hotel or rebuild next to the McKay building?

    You know how those "blighted" areas could use someone moving in and improving the surrounding areas. It will attract so many more upstanding citizens.

    Otherwise by-passing your racist bull-karap and not putting myself on your lower level...some of which would include how the Catholic Church caters to non-whites, I will keep the LDS Church on Brayton Drive in my prayers.

  2. so grateful to be Mormon!3/25/2007 5:03 PM

    thank you so much for posting the information and news links. i appreciate that you did this, especially because i had not seen the news video clips.

    i am a member of the brayton ward and was baptized in this bldg 2 years ago. gathering together for church services today in another location was wonderful. it was a beautiful service. the church is the same no matter where we meet to worship together with our ward family. everything still continues, just in different bldgs or homes. things are going to work out.

    the best is yet to come.

    God bless,
    so grateful to be Mormon!

  3. and so grateful to be anonymous...*snicker*