Oakland's First African Methodist Episcopal church damaged by fire

Oakland firefighters battled a huge fire at First African Methodist Episcopal Church late Sunday night.

There was major damage to the building, which is the oldest Black church in the East Bay. It has been red-tagged by authorities, meaning that it is unsafe for use. 

"It's devastating not only for our parishioners but also for the city," said Pastor Rodney Smith. "We have served and educated the community longer than anybody."

The church was founded in 1858.

The fire department announced that approximately 60 firefighters rushed to put out the flames at the house of worship, near 37th Street and Telegraph Avenue.

The department tweeted video of the church fire, and crews from the ground and on aerial ladders, dousing water on the roof and interior of the building.

"This was one of the most challenging fires we've had. There were so many hot spots, so many void spaces, it just kept flaring up," said Battalion Chief Frank Tijiboy. 

Firefighters attacked the fire aggressively for about the first 50 minutes but realized they weren't making headway.

"We decided to pull everyone out and go from offensive to defensive and just pull up our what we call ladder pipes and extinguish it from outside," Tijiboy said.

Authorities reported no one was injured. 

The cause of the fire is not yet known. Oakland fire investigators are working with ATF agents to determine what started the blaze.

A witness told KTVU he saw a homeless man at the church's side entrance rubbing his hands over a fire he'd set to stay warm.

"I saw him burning a fire," said the witness, who didn't want to be named. "He had a pit fire right in front of the sidewalk, and it smoked the whole block up. And then, an hour later, the church is on fire. I'm saying I don't believe in coincidences."

After visiting the site of the fire on Sunday, Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao, on Monday, released a statement. "This is absolutely heartbreaking," she said.  Upon visiting, Thao said she "immediately felt the strong sense of community that has been a hallmark throughout their history."

"I want to express my appreciation to our dedicated Oakland firefighters for their fast and sustained response to this significant incident," said Thao. "Their hard work contained the fire and helped ensure the safety of our residents." 

The church feeds 300 people per week, according to Councilwoman Carroll Fife. She said she will work to hopefully keep the free meals available to people.

Donations to help rebuild the church are being collected on GoFundMe. Click here for information.

Bay City News contributed to this report.