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Leaf fire spread to church; man fined $1,300

A barrel of burning leaves was likely the cause of last week's Starbuck United Church fire.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Enlarge Image

A barrel of burning leaves was likely the cause of last week's Starbuck United Church fire.

The man whose leaf fire burned down Starbuck's United Church has been fined nearly $1,300.

The RCMP said Monday the 42-year-old man was charged and fined under the Wildfires Act, specifically the section barring starting a fire that burns out of control.

The man was burning leaves and other debris in a barrel on a property close to the church. The fire spread to a shed and then to the church.

The 110-year-old church caught fire Friday afternoon and burned nearly to the ground.

A couple of volunteers managed to save the church safe, which contained valuable historical records.

The provincial Office of the Fire Commissioner said damage is estimated at $650,000, including $50,000 in fire damage to homes on either side of the church, which was insured.

United Church minister Catherine Maxwell said Friday the congregation includes family members whose ancestors founded the church. "It's going to be a big loss," she said. "We're a very small congregation, but a close one."

Pat Thomaschewski sat in the church's pews for the past 56 years. "It's just heartbreaking," she said Friday. "You just don't expect it to happen to you. Some of (the members) are born and raised in it and will really find it tough."

Like Shirley Weidman, for example.

"I thought, 'I'm strong; I can look at the church and not cry,' " she said, just prior to an emergency meeting of church members late Friday afternoon. "But I couldn't. My children were baptized in that church. What will I do on Sunday? It's part of my life. I always thought my funeral would be there. Now what will I do?"

Ellen Saltiss, who first attended Starbuck United Church at the age of five, later sang in the choir and even later directed the church dinner-theatre production, has faith rebuilding will be part of any plan.

"There's too much love, too much history with all the people here to just abandon it," she said Friday. "We know the other churches will welcome us with open arms until we can rebuild. There's strength in numbers, and we're such a close family. We just care about each other so much. We won't let it be the death of us. It means too much to us."

Maxwell said it's too early to determine what happens next.

The Lutheran Church in Starbuck has offered to let the United Church congregation share its place of worship, but no definitive plans have yet been made, Maxwell said Monday night.

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