Highlands church fire leaves parishioners, programs scrambling for new space

Scaffolding and plywood cover the front of Highlands United Church, signs of fire damage to a building that has long-been a community hub.

A woman spotted someone leaving the church, then saw an orange glow from the building

Flames engulfed part of the Highlands United Church on Friday Sept. 14, 2018. (Supplied/Melanie Harmsma)

Scaffolding and plywood hang off the front of the Highlands United Church, signs of fire damage to a 95-year-old building that has long-been a community hub.

A blaze on Friday morning is being investigated as a possible arson. In its wake, a wedding party had to scramble for a new location, a church service had to be moved to a golf course and a pre-school must now find a new building for its program.

"It's a strong community and it's very connected," said Melanie Harmsma, who owns the Highlands Nursery School, which is run out of the church at 113th Avenue and 64th Street.

"I'm not surprised that there's been so many offers of support to the church, the pre-school, and the people who will be impacted by the fire in the long and short term."

Harmsma was preparing for her class of three- and four-year-olds to arrive on Friday morning when she heard some thumping upstairs at the church. When the alarms went off a few moments later, she looked out the door and saw someone leaving the building.

"I assumed it was a robbery that had taken place... I followed him around the side of the building and saw he was getting on a white mountain bike and fleeing the scene," she said on Saturday.

"I called the police to report the robbery and as I came back around the south side of the building, I saw some orange in the window, which first looked like the reflection of a morning sunrise." 

Highlands United Church receives help

5 years ago
Duration 1:24
After a fire burned in Edmonton's Highlands United Church, the congregation and the owner of a preschool in the building received help from neighbours.

She soon realized there were flames consuming part of the 95-year-old building. Firefighters arrived within a few minutes, just as parents with their kids in strollers and wagons began to roll up to the church for the pre-school program.

No one was injured in the blaze. Edmonton Fire Rescue Services is still investigating. The fire was under control within about half an hour.

While the worst fire damage was limited to the church administration area, the damage from smoke and water is extensive through much of the building.

Rev. John Burrill said a restoration company has been called to the building. It's not known when it might be open again for programs or church services.

He called the fire "a bump in the road."

"I'm looking forward to being with my people," he said about the Sunday service, scheduled to be held at the Highlands Golf Course.

"And being there to share the ministry of presence and just to be reassured that we are not alone and that nothing will separate us from the love of God. And a church is not a building, it's the people. No one was hurt, this is fixable. So let's give thanks."