Fire damages 140-year-old Forestville church
Fire early Monday severely damaged an iconic west county church — a distinctive white, clapboard house of worship with a tall bell tower that has stood along one of Forestville’s main rural roads for 140 years.
The Forestville Church of Christ on Covey Road, built in 1879 with old‑growth redwood cut from along the Russian River, is a piece of local history as well as a religious gathering place for generations of local families. Monday, when the flames were out, the exterior white walls and bell tower remained, hiding an inside now burned or blackened by heat and smoke.
Firefighters had pulled some items from the church and Monday afternoon a handful of parishioners sorted through a pile of charred and smoky books, mainly Bibles and hymnals. Some appeared to be salvageable.
Church member Carla Peterson helped on the task. Peterson’s father was raised attending the church and she’s been a member for about 30 years. Monday afternoon she was near tears.
“Even though I’m really sad and devastated I think there is a chance to bring it back. Look around, it’s still standing,” she said.
In the pile, they’d found a photo from the 1800s capturing the congregation gathered in front of the church and a Press Democrat newspaper clipping from 1994 about a church anniversary.
But the blaze had damaged many framed photos beyond saving.
Investigators hadn’t yet determined what started the fire but officials didn’t believe it to be suspicious.
Forestville Fire Chief Dave Franceschi said the cause remained under investigation with nothing officially ruled out.
The fire started in a small room near where the original structure and later additions met — where parishioners arranged flowers and prepared for communion. But there also were electrical outlets in the area and possibly a small refrigerator, and whether there was an electrical issue also remained part of the investigation, the chief said.
Covey Road is one of the west county community’s main routes. About 6:10 a.m. numerous drivers began dialing 911 to report the church fire, according to emergency dispatch records.
Arriving Forestville firefighters found the interior of the wooden building ablaze, Franceschi said. Graton, Russian River, Sebastopol and Cal Fire firefighters joined the attack, with about 30 firefighters on the effort. They stopped the entire building from burning but damage was severe, with most of the fire damage to the two classrooms, added on some 70 to 80 years ago. Flames also spread into the sanctuary.
Niel Yeager of Forestville learned of the fire from two family members — a firefighting grandson who heard the dispatch for a Forestville church fire and his daughter who called 911 as she was heading for work and then alerted her dad.
After dropping his grandkids at school, Yeager stopped to see the damage.
“It’s very, very sad. How much damage is in this old sanctuary and can this old sanctuary be recovered and rebuilt?” he wondered.
Yeager’s family lines extend back to the mid 1800s and the Covey and Ross families, instrumental in helping establish greater Forestville. Uriah Covey felled the heart redwood and donated it to build the original sanctuary and bell tower, he said.
“The church just celebrated 140 years this year,” he said.