Fire damages 140-year-old Forestville church
Fire early Monday severely damaged an iconic west county church - a distinctive white, clapboard house of worship with a tall bell tower that has stood along one of Forestville’s main rural roads for 140 years.
The Forestville Church of Christ on Covey Road, built in 1879 with old-growth redwood cut from along the Russian River, is a piece of local history as well as a religious gathering place for generations of local families. On Monday, when the flames were out, the exterior white walls and bell tower remained, hiding an inside now burned or blackened by heat and smoke.
Firefighters had pulled some items from the church, and on Monday afternoon a handful of parishioners sorted through a pile of charred and smoky books, mainly Bibles and hymnals. Some appeared to be salvageable.
Church member Carla Peterson helped with the task. Peterson’s father was raised attending the church, and she’s been a member for about 30 years. Monday afternoon she was near tears.
“Even though I’m really sad and devastated, I think there is a chance to bring it back. Look around, it’s still standing,” she said.
In the pile, they’d found a photo from the 1800s capturing the congregation gathered in front of the church and a Press Democrat newspaper clipping from 1994 about a church anniversary.
But the blaze had damaged many framed photos beyond saving.
Investigators hadn’t yet determined what started the fire, but officials didn’t believe it to be suspicious.
Forestville Fire Chief Dave Franceschi said the cause remained under investigation with nothing officially ruled out.
The fire started in a small room near where the original structure and later additions met - where parishioners arranged flowers and prepared for communion. But there also were electrical outlets in the area and possibly a small refrigerator, and whether there was an electrical issue also remained part of the investigation, the chief said.
Covey Road is one of the west county community’s main routes. About 6:10 a.m. numerous drivers began dialing 911 to report the church fire, according to emergency dispatch records.
Arriving Forestville firefighters found the interior of the wooden building ablaze, Franceschi said. Graton, Russian River, Sebastopol and Cal Fire firefighters joined the attack, with about 30 firefighters on the effort.
They stopped the entire building from burning but damage was severe, with most of the fire damage to the two classrooms, added on some 70 to 80 years ago. Flames also spread into the sanctuary.
Niel Yeager of Forestville learned of the fire from two family members - a firefighting grandson, who heard the dispatch for a Forestville church fire, and his daughter, who called 911 as she was heading for work and then alerted her dad.
After dropping his grandkids at school, Yeager stopped to see the damage.
“It’s very, very sad. How much damage is in this old sanctuary, and can this old sanctuary be recovered and rebuilt?” he wondered.
Yeager’s family lines extend back to the mid-1800s and the Covey and Ross families, instrumental in helping establish greater Forestville. Uriah Covey felled the heart redwood and donated it to build the original sanctuary and bell tower, he said.
“The church just celebrated 140 years this year,” he said.
Though he now worships at the Methodist church across the street, Yeager, a retired high school teacher, grew up attending the Church of Christ, like his parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and those before - Uriah Covey and his wife Sarah were among the original parishioners. A photograph of a 1919 Covey family reunion shows dozens of relatives lined up in front of the little church, including Yeager’s father, Clinton Ross Yeager, a lifelong parishioner.
“I’m glad my father didn’t have to see this,” Yeager said. “For 100 years this was his church.”
An early estimate of the damage indicated at least one-quarter of the old building will need rebuilding, Franceschi said.
A Sonoma County building department representative surveyed the damage and reported the badly charred area could be rebuilt while the rest appeared to be structurally salvageable, but that the entire unburned area had heavy heat and smoke damage that would need work.
The firefighting effort led the CHP to shut down northbound Covey Road for much of the morning at Highway 116. The church sits just up from the intersection with Highway 116 and a few doors down from El Molino High School.
Wayne Mitchell stood outside the church Monday afternoon, taking pictures of the charred structure. Mitchell drives by the church every day on his way to work at Food For Thought, the Forestville-based food bank. He really admired the architecture, and even attended a Christmas service there a few years ago. The fire dealt a sharp loss to the community, he said.
“I always thought this church was so charming,” Mitchell said.
In recent years, the once-bustling house of worship has seen its regular flock dwindle to about 10, as many loyal parishioners have aged, died or moved on.
Pastor Tom Nicholas recently moved out of the county and an elder has been giving sermons, parishioners said.
In her 2008 book, “Forestville,” author Penny Hutten described the local chapel as the oldest Church of Christ in the western United States.