Bear, a 4-year-old German shepherd, perhaps has opened the door for his breed, long-known as police service dogs, to gain some notoriety as “volunteer” fire fighters as well.
About 12:45 a.m. Sunday, May 2, in Somers, New York, Bear was asleep in Kim Lewis’ room in his dog bed. Suddenly he began barking and howling; not a greeting bark or a playful bark, but a bark that communicated to Lewis that something was very wrong — and it was.
Awakened by Bear, Lewis noticed what seemed to be flashing lights in her window, but when she opened her blinds to see what was going on, she saw the church across the street — her home church, Yorktown Assembly of God — was on fire!
Lewis, who has attended Yorktown AG for 17 years, immediately called 911 to report the fire. She then hurried across the street to awaken the church administrator, Lisa Wain, and her husband, Matt, who live next door to the church and could possibly be in danger if the fire grew too large.
“I was asleep, but Matt was still up when Kim came to our door,” Lisa Wain says. “Then I heard Kim yelling about the church and Matt then yelled out to me that the church was on fire — our house is only about 20 feet from the church, so we quickly got our two children up and out of the house.”
However, the New York State Police and the Somers Volunteer Fire Department were quick to respond to Lewis’ report, with six additional fire departments also arriving on the scene. The fire was quickly put under control and extinguished within about 20 minutes of the fire fighters’ arrival.
But the scene was still difficult to observe.
“When we came out of the house, it was a devastating site,” Wain says. “We were watching the cross on fire, and the flames then leapt up to the peak of the building.”
The fire is believed to have possibly been started due to a light (on the backlit 12-foot cross mounted on the exterior of the church) bursting and/or coming in contact with a bird’s nest or beehive — no one is for sure, except it’s not believed to have been an electrical short, which was the original suspicion. Once started, the fire worked itself up the cross and began eating into the attic. But due to Bear alerting Lewis, and the speedy response of firefighters, the damage was far less than it could have been.
Firefighters were amazed at the minimal damage the fire had done, but told Wain that in 5 to 10 more minutes it would have hit the electrical box and the entire building would have been engulfed.
“Firefighters kept coming up to me and telling me I needed to enter a raffle because we were so lucky,” Wain says, “but I just kept telling them, ‘No, it’s God.’”
Wain says that they originally estimated the blaze resulted in about $50,000 of damage, however that number has now been moved to at least $80,000 in damage as more interior damage has been identified. She also notes that since the fire was on the outside of the building and working itself in, the fire alarms in the church had not gone off.
“We’re assuming Bear smelled the smoke,” Wain says, “but whatever it was, if he didn’t wake Kim up, there’s no telling how long it would have been before anyone was aware of the fire.”
Wain also expresses deep appreciation for the state police for making sure the church was empty and for the firefighters’ quick response and taking the unexpected initiative of tarping the building before they left.
“Our insurance adjustor told me that in all his years he had never seen a fire department tarp a roof,” she says. “We have some incredible firefighters here!” However, for now, church services will temporarily be held under a tent set up on the church grounds.
Pastor Don Foster has urged his Yorktown AG congregation to bless first responders with letters of thanks, gift cards, gift baskets, and other forms of appropriate appreciation. And, of course, numerous congregants have already started cheerfully providing Bear with his preferred treats and toys as well.
In a message posted to Yorktown AG’s Facebook page shortly after the fire, it read: “We want to thank God first and foremost, followed by the countless first responders that came to help, and finally, Bear, the BEST dog in the world for keeping us from experiencing a devastating loss here at the church.”