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Lightning strike may have caused fire that destroyed 135-year-old church on Minn.-ND border

Fire destroyed the Skjeberg Lutheran Church along the Red River on Sunday night. Matt Kasprowicz/Special to Forum News Service1 / 2
Church president Kris Heine was driving by the historic church recently when she stopped to take this scenic picture. Submitted photo2 / 2

DRAYTON, N.D. — When Roger Anderson got a call from church president and sister Kris Heine late Sunday night, he knew immediately it was bad.

He only had to look out his window to see the historic, 135-year-old Skjeberg Lutheran Church was fully on fire near the northern part of the Red River Valley on the Minnesota side.

Anderson, a fourth-generation member of the congregation, lives on a farm about 2½ miles south of the church.

"It was one of the worst sights I've ever seen," Anderson said. "You definitely could see the outline of the church. It was all on fire."

His neighbor 2 miles north of the church, Gary Jenson, saw it, too. He was the first person to notice the glow through the haze of the storm and drove through the 6-inch-deep snow to check it out.

By the time he arrived at the church, about 3 miles east and a 1½ miles north of Drayton on the North Dakota side, he said the steeple already had fallen and the rest of the church was engulfed in flames.

Volunteer firefighters from Drayton, along with Minnesota crews from Kennedy, Hallock and Stephen all responded, but there was little they could do to save the church first built by Norwegian settlers in 1883.

Volunteer Drayton Fire Chief Jordan Grundstrom said he got the call at 9:41 p.m., but the fire was shooting through the roof when crews arrived 12 minutes later. The storm made travel extremely difficult, he said, doubling the usual response time.

"Not that we would have been able to save it, but it definitely hindered our capability to fight it," he said. "We endured some rain and a little bit of sleet, but the wind was probably the worst factor. It was a wind-pushed fire. The winds were 20 to 25 mph and that helped fuel the fire and make it spread that much quicker."

The cause of the fire is unknown, but Grundstrom said many speculate lightning may have been the source.

"It sure seems like a possibility," Grundstrom said. "We were in the middle of a terrible thunder and lightning storm that lasted for a very long time."

Grundstrom said the near-blizzard conditions also caused some firefighters in personal vehicles to slide into the ditch on their way to the fire, but no one was injured.

The fire destroyed the church, but the congregation with roughly 100 members is trying to stay positive. Heine said three neighbor churches already have offered to open their doors for services and meetings. Heine called a private congregation meeting for Wednesday.

People who want to send donations to the church, may send them to Skjeberg Lutheran Church, c/o Koda Bank, Box 369, Drayton, ND 58225.

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