The three-alarm fire that ravaged the 6,000-square-foot dormitory of a Buddhist temple in eastern Berks County on Saturday started accidentally, and the updated damage estimate puts the loss at over a million dollars, a state police fire marshal said on Monday.
The Mituo Village dormitory fire, located in the sprawling Hereford Township complex that is home to the Amitabha Buddhist Society of Philadelphia, was first reported at 10:12 a.m. with multiple 9-1-1 calls.
Smoke billowed from the sprawling building, which sits in a clearing on a hill in the 300 block of Conrad Road. You could see it for miles.
Private Corey Heimbach, a fire marshal with Troop L., based in Reading, said investigators had identified the source of the fire outside the dormitory. It was triggered by debris from a chimney.
About 100 firefighters from Berks, Lehigh and Montgomery counties responded. The teams needed more than an hour to bring the flames under control. The crews used approximately 60,000 gallons of water which was transported by tanker trucks from a nearby farm pond.
About half of the building was destroyed by fire, with little more than a charred frame and blackened rubble left in the early afternoon.
People were in the temple when the fire started, but everyone came out uninjured before the firefighters arrived. A firefighter was rushed to hospital for a medical emergency and kept overnight for observation.
The 140-acre complex was once a long-standing United Church of Christ retreat known as Camp Mensch Mill. For 84 years, the predominantly forested area was home to summer youth camps, workshops, and retreats and was managed and supported by congregations of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Conference of the United Church of Christ, or PSEC.
In 2014, PSEC sold the retreat in 2014 to the Amitabha Buddhist Society of Philadelphia.
“We have an exciting and extraordinary opportunity to continue our connection with what is for a lot in the sacred soil of PSEC, and to do so in partnership with new friends including stewardship of the land, the pursuit of spiritual well-being and respect for tradition reflects our own, ”PSEC conference minister Reverend William P. Worley told Reading Eagle in 2014.
In a statement written at the time, a spokesperson for Amitabha said there was a strong desire not to disturb the land and to honor the spiritual traditions that preceded the purchase.
“The first and foremost mission of the company is to establish the Pure Land Learning Center in the Holy Land,” he said. “Second, the Company will sincerely seek to work with PSEC to continue the Mensch Mill Property Leadership Retreat and Training Program in the near future; and third, we will seek to partner with other interested parties to create the next multi-faith multicultural center as a model city of peace and harmony.
A spokesperson for the Amitabha company could not be reached for comment on the fire.