ST. GEORGE — A new stake center for the St. George East Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was heavily damaged by fire early Saturday.
Fire officials there are saying the fire was intentionally set.
"Whether you believe this faith or not, it doesn't matter. This is sacred ground," said resident Michelle Tooke. "This is the Mormons' place of worship, and to see the devastation, it just breaks my heart. It's gut-wrenching."
The fire started just after 1 a.m. and burned quickly through the ceiling and attic. St. George Fire Chief Robert Stoker said a fire sprinkler system was installed but not yet functional in the building, which was nearing the end of its construction process.
Stoker said burn patterns suggest the fire started outside of the building and was started using some sort of fuel. Officials with the local police, fire and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are helping with the ongoing investigation.
The building, Stoker said, was expected to be finished in about a month and is now a total loss.
"The building that we were so anticipating moving into over the next few months is gone," a post on the St. George East Stake's Facebook page states. "Those that were up watching it burn were stunned and in complete shock. Our faith is only strengthened as we work through this bump in the road."
Firefighters from St. George, Washington and Ivins all participated in the mostly defensive attack on the blaze. Stoker said the steeple and a large portion of the roof collapsed, making it more dangerous to fight the flames from inside.
The original East Stake Center, which was demolished to build the new building, was built by local church members in the 1960s. Reconstruction of the new building, located across the street from the pioneer-era St. George Temple, at 453 S. 300 East, began in February 2018.
A video history of the construction is posted online at eaststake.com.
"It’s just terrible to have this sort of thing happen here," said stake spokesman Ralph Atkin. "The building was only a month away from opening and to have it go up in smoke and flames is just devastating."
He said three Latter-day Saint congregations have been displaced during the construction. Now they will have to wait as the damaged new building is razed and work restarts.
Atkin said a camera at the St. George Temple Visitors' Center caught the start of the fire at 12:45 a.m. A facility management camera also captured the blaze. However, both cameras are on the west side of the building and the fire began on the east side.
"I know there's a lot going on in the world, but this is really close to home," said John Gordon, a resident in St. George. He said it's not the first time they've had to endure hard things, citing the flood in 2005.
"We're really resilient," Gordon said. "We just pick up and move on. We know the plan. And, yeah, we get hit every once in a while, but, most of us come from good pioneer stock and we can handle stuff like this."
Small pockets of the once very large fire burned into the afternoon, but firefighters remained on scene to monitor the situation. No one was injured in the fire Saturday.
Stoker is asking anyone with information about the origin of the fire to call St. George police at the nonemergency number, 435-627-4300.
Contributing: Tad Walch, Marc Weaver and Alex Cabrero