- Associated Press - Monday, June 23, 2014

FORT DODGE, Iowa (AP) - Authorities said an arsonist started a fire that destroyed a historic former church building in downtown Fort Dodge.

Fire Chief Kent Hulett said investigators have confirmed the Saturday fire was arson, but they’re still determining how it was set. Investigators were getting help from a dog that is trained to sniff out accelerants.

“It can be time-consuming going through the debris, plus (the building) is structurally unsound,” Hulett told The Messenger newspaper. “The problem is it’s so hard to preserve the evidence. So much of it is burned up or buried.”

The fire was reported around 2 p.m. Saturday, and two exterior walls collapsed a little more than an hour later. Firefighters were at the scene until 9:30 p.m.

The building, which was built in the 1880s, is considered a complete loss.

Fighting the fire was complicated by Saturday’s hot, humid conditions. Red Cross volunteers and staff from Trinity Regional Medical Center arrived to give water to firefighters and ensure they were OK.

“You had all your turnout gear, and about 40 pounds of air packs, and you spend the first half hour running around pulling out ladders and equipment,” Hulett said. “With the heat conditions, we had people here on their knees. It got to me a little bit.”

The building was originally home to the Bethlehem Lutheran Church until the Fort Dodge Church of Christ moved into the building in the 1950s. In 1985 a private owner bought the building and lived there. A business has been using the building.

No one was reported inside the building during the fire, but Hulett said there’s a report that a woman was inside before the fire was reported.

A reward of up to $15,000 is being offered for information. The arson hotline number is 800-532-1459.

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