Damage to St. Joseph Catholic Church in Andale is estimated at $1 million after an early morning fire Sunday, according to a news release from Sedgwick County.
The fire also caused tension between the firefighters union and the Wichita Fire Department after a city truck was told to leave the fire. The city said that happened in error, while the union linked it to new policies.
Two firefighters who were taken to the hospital have also been released, said Sedgwick County Fire Chief Tavis Leake. They were treated for smoke inhalation and burns.
On Monday, Mike Schulte, president of Wichita Firefighters, posted an open letter to the group’s Facebook page.
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In it, he wrote that the Wichita Fire Department’s crews working the fire in Andale were told “to abandon the ongoing fire attack operations,” including removing their 100-foot aerial ladder truck, a resource Sedgwick County and the smaller departments do not have.
“It is unknown how much additional damage this caused to the Church,” Schulte wrote.
Schulte blamed that on a policy introduced in June that reduced response units available and a decrease in the number of active duty personnel.
Stuart Bevis, Wichita fire marshal, disagreed with that explanation, saying “it had nothing to do with overtime, nothing to do with staffing.”
Normally, the 100-foot truck is only sent that far out of the city with the authorization of the chief or deputy chief, Bevis said. Somehow, the truck was sent without the authorization. After the mistake was realized, the battalion chief had the truck sent back, Bevis said.
A squad and a battalion chief had also been sent to assist with the fire. Bevis said he thought they also returned to the city, but possibly because they had been relieved by others.
Bevis said that was “an unfortunate decision” to send the truck back and that city policies were not followed.
“We’re pretty disappointed with the decision of union leadership to take this tack,” Bevis said. “They’ve posted many things about the separate issue when it comes to what we're having to do with the staffing… but that and the situation of the Andale fire have absolutely nothing to do with each other.”
Sunday evening, the burned church was visited by Gov. Jeff Colyer, who was in Wichita for another event when he learned about the fire. He went through the building to see the damage, then stayed and participated in the Rosary that was held outside the church and attended a community picnic.
“Having a chance to see the inside of the church after the fire, I was very saddened to see the damage it caused to such a beautiful building that means so much to many members of the Andale community,” Colyer said in an emailed statement. “What impressed me was how well firefighters were able to handle such a difficult job. They had to climb a very narrow staircase, only a couple of feet wide. You can only imagine what it was like with the fire and the water and the smoke. They were very brave.”
Damage to the church was primarily to the roof, including its steel structure, Leake, the Sedgwick County fire chief, said. The cause is still being investigated, but was likely a lightning strike, he said.
Church leaders were not immediately available for comment Monday about their plans for the church’s future. On Sunday, they celebrated Mass at Andale High School.