California firefighters are investigating the origin of a fire that destroyed a historic 249-year-old Catholic church.In the early morning hours Saturday, firefighters responded to a fire at the San Gabriel Mission where they found a massive blaze engulfing the roof and front entrance of the church, San Gabriel Fire Department fire captain Antonio Negrete told CNN.
The church sits about 11 miles northeast of Los Angeles.When firefighters made a forced entry into the church in an attempt to put out the blaze, portions of the roof and ceiling began to fall, he said. About 80 firefighters from 12 fire agencies fought the blaze for nearly three hours, Negrete added.
“During the initial stages of the fire attack, firefighters were able to remove historical artifacts and some artwork from the path of the blaze,” fire chief Steven Wallace told CNN. “Once the heavy fire in the roof was knocked down, firefighters re-entered the old church and made a valiant stand to cut off the horizontal spread of the fire near the altar area, sparing items that date back to the late 1700s.”
The church has been at the center of a controversy surrounding statues of St. Junipero Serra — seen as symbols of violence and oppression to indigenous populations — which have been toppled by activists across California. “One of the factors investigators are taking into account is the recent vandalism to the statues of the saint, specifically in the Los Angeles region,” Negrete said.
Following the toppling of Serra statues across California, the San Gabriel Mission relocated their bronze statue of Serra, which stood outside the church entrance since the 1980s,”to a more appropriate location, out of public view,” they announced before the fire.
Other churches in the greater Los Angeles area that have also had incidents and any possible connection between incidents will be examined as part of the investigation, according to Wallace, the fire chief.