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Someone Is Burning Omak’s Churches and Schools

February 16, 1988

OMAK, Wash. (AP) _ An arsonist who burned the town’s elementary school and damaged a church that opened its doors to students may have set a fire Monday that destroyed another church and its classrooms, authorities said.

Omak, a central Washington town of 4,000 that boasts Okanogan County’s only stoplight, has been terrorized by the arson spree.

″It’s affected everyone in town. People are very, very grim,″ said Mary Koch, managing editor of the weekly Omak Chronicle. ″They were somber as they drove by it going to work this morning. It was still burning.″

The North Omak Elementary School was heavily damaged in a January fire, its second in two months. In the past two weeks, two churches and a church parsonage have been set afire.

″They’re a kook ... someone who is unbalanced,″ said Vic Power, superintendent of Omak’s school district.

School officials have checked through their records for any former employee or student who has a grudge but have turned up nothing, he said.

″One of the interesting things in Omak is we haven’t had any particular problems with people, haven’t had anyone out there we could identify who had been on our case for any particular reason,″ Power said.

Police Chief Peter Sirois said police are looking at two or three ″persons of interest″ at this point. Police have interviewed about a dozen people so far, he said. He declined to say why the ″persons of interest″ might have wanted to harm the schools or churches.

Firefighters on Monday extinguished the latest fire, which destroyed the $1.5 million Omak Presbyterian Church. The church and the Free Methodist Church had served as temporary classrooms after the fire at the elementary school, which served students in kindergarten though second grade.

Last week, the Methodist church sustained about $200,000 in damage. A fire set there Saturday and at the parsonage next door on Sunday caused an additional $30,000 in damage, said Mike Cramer, assistant chief of the eight- person Omak police force.

″It’s got everybody on the edge,″ said pastor Elbert G. Harlow, who lives across the street from his Presbyterian Church. ″They’re nervous ... waiting to see what’s going to happen next.″

Church officials met Sunday night and made sure all doors and windows were locked, Harlow said. A security guard woke him Monday with news of the fire.

The blzae apparently was set by someone who broke into the basement through a window hidden by two evergreen trees beside the three-story, red-brick church, Omak Fire Chief Cal Bowling said.

But Bowling said he’d rather not discuss the investigation with reporters.

″Whoever set these fires is going to read your report, and I’d just hate to let him know what this has done to the community,″ Bowling said.

The latest fire was too hot Monday for the fire marshal to determine what caused it, Cramer said.

″We have a strong feeling but we can’t draw any conclusions yet,″ he said. Authorities hope to determine the cause by Tuesday.

But there was no doubt that an arsonist had set the earlier fires, Cramer said.

The fires are beginning to take a psychological toll on residents and on the 1,800 students, including 450 from North Omak Elementary, Cramer said.

″It’s having a bad effect on everybody. When the first fire hit the school it devastated the kids. It was tough for them to move. Now they’re going to have to again,″ he said.

Electricians and plumbers helped set up temporary buildings as classrooms, said Cramer, who added that nighttime patrols have been expanded with the help of the Okanogan Sheriff’s Department.

″It only seems to happen while Omak sleeps,″ Cramer said. ″In a way that’s good, because the buildings are empty and, so far, no one has been hurt.″

The Rev. Norman Lund, pastor of Foursquare Gospel Church, which also housed North Elementary students, said he doesn’t ″want to guess what the arsonist is thinking.

″I think everyone’s concerned about saying anything,″ he said. ″You don’t want to motivate the person.″

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