Three suspicious fires were started at or near meetinghouses of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints throughout St. George early Tuesday, one causing significant damage.
One man was taken into custody in connection with the fires following a chase with police that went from St. George into Zion National Park, according to the St. George Police Department.
About 4 a.m., emergency dispatchers received reports of smoke coming from a meetinghouse on 3000 East in the 1200 South block, said St. George Fire Chief Robert Stoker. Firefighters from several agencies were called to help fight that fire.
The church “was not equipped with a fire suppression system” and sustained heavy fire damage, according to police.
Shortly after that fire, crews were called on the report of a brush fire or tree fire at the meetinghouse on south River Road and Rustic Drive. Several areas of landscaping were on fire at that location, according to the fire department.
At that point, police began checking other churches in the area. An officer spotted a minivan parked at a stake center at 1762 S. River Road, and then noticed smoke coming from the building. That building did have a fire suppression system that put out the fire, but the building sustained heavy water damage, Stoker said.
Shortly after noticing the smoke, the officer reported seeing a man run out of the church, get into a minivan and speed away. A chase began and officers from several agencies attempted to stop the man as he fled first onto I-15, then through Hurricane and into Springdale.
“The suspect’s vehicle was spiked twice before reaching Zion National Park,” according to police.
After crossing into the park, the fleeing vehicle crashed and started a small fire, police said. The driver was taken to a local hospital to be treated for minor injuries. As of Tuesday morning, detectives had not been able to confirm the man’s identity.
Both the meetinghouse on 3000 East and the 1700 South stake center will likely remain inoperable for a long time, Stoker said, due to heavy damage. He did not have an estimate on cost.
He said the fires are not yet being labeled as arson, but they’re extremely suspicious. Investigators from the St. George Police Department, Utah State Fire Marshal’s Office, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are assisting with the case. The crews will likely break into teams to investigate each of the meetinghouses, Stoker said.
“Anytime we get any type of fire at a place of worship, whether it’s suspicious or not, we would contact the state fire marshal and ATF just because we do not know where that investigation would lead, whether it’s an accidental or suspicious fire,” he added.
While St. George has experienced arson and other suspicious fires in the past, the city has never experienced three fires at places of worship at the same time.
Anyone who might have noticed something suspicious in the area of the fires is asked to call police or the fire department at 435-627-4338.
Stoker noted that often the details that residents think might be unimportant end up helping investigators find who is responsible. He urged residents in general to watch out for their neighborhoods and if they see something, to say something.
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly stated the meetinghouse on 300 East burned. It was on 3000 East.