Blaze destroys former downtown church

A former church building downtown was destroyed by fire Saturday afternoon.

Initially classified as a three-alarm fire requiring all Fort Dodge Fire Department personnel to respond,

Chief Kent Hulett said it had reached the status of a four-alarm fire due to the amount of mutual aid called to assist. Extra firefighters from areaa communities were needed to help cover the city while the hometown department was occupied – as well as providing relief on the scene for those battling the flames when the 80-plus-degree temperatures got too hot.

Among the departments called were Badger, Clare, Otho, Humboldt, Moorland and Vincent. Additionally, Trinity Regional Medical Center provided heat-relief assistance.

The Fort Dodge Fire Department first received the call at 2:02 p.m., Hulett said. When its personnel arrived, fire was evident on the lower level, and they immediately vented the windows, finding heavy smoke. Flames broke through the roof, and the first exterior wall collapsed around 3:15 p.m. A second wall went down about five minutes later.

“Unfortunately, we had to go on the defensive,” Hulett said. “We couldn’t put guys inside. Our concerns were the extreme fire conditions, possible collapse and our guys dropping from the heat.”

Scanner traffic Saturday referred to suspicious activity, a possibility echoed by a man who identified himself as a member of the family that owns the building.

“I think someone set it,” he said.

An investigator from the state fire marshal’s office was called, a measure Hulett said is taken for a “major fire investigation.” Officials have yet to comment on the cause of the blaze.

According to a family member, the renovated structure belongs to Pam Habhab, the widow of Roger Habhab who owned several businesses and properties in Fort Dodge until his death in October 2012. In fact, Pam Habhab was said to remain a partial owner in Ag Advantage, a magazine and marketing business housed in the building.

The structure was originally a church, serving as the Bethlehem Lutheran Church beginning in the early 1900s until the Fort Dodge Church of Christ moved into the building in the 1950s. It was reported in archives of The Messenger that the congregation of the Church of Christ had outgrown the building and sold it to Roger Habhab in 1985. His initial plans were to renovate the building and use it as office space for one of his businesses.

A portion of the building provided living space, though. Nick Pallos, of Fort Dodge, is a grandchild of the Habhabs and lived for a time in a small attic apartment with his mother before moving to the building next door, which is currently the Fireside Lounge, though at the time was a residence.

“There was a playroom up there for all the grandkids,” he said, pointing at the upper section of the former church. “We used to have a lot of fun in there.”

Ronelle Crouse, Pallos’ aunt, remembers visiting Pallos at the structure in the 1990s.

“It was just beautiful inside,” she said. “I remember they had train sets in the basement, and, oh, the beautiful stained glass windows.”

The fire was sufficiently under control by 5:20 p.m. that the additional fire departments were released to return home; however, Hulett said the streets within a block in every direction of the intersection of 11th Street and First Avenue will remain closed until further notice.

Residents of the neighboring Beacon of Hope Men’s Shelter self-evacuated shortly after they learned of the fire. Director Steve Roe said due to the proximity of the shelter to the burning structure, he had not yet been allowed to return to the Beacon and inspect for any damage. Additionally, the men from the shelter were moved to St. Olaf Lutheran Church for the night.