Authorities are investigating a fire that caused significant damage to a Lonoke County church Wednesday morning.
Sheriff's office Lt. Jim Kulesa said the cause of the fire at the Southbend United Methodist Church isn't yet known, but arson has not been ruled out.
"Anytime you get a fire you're going to investigate it as a possible arson," Kulesa said at the scene Wednesday, where fire tape circled the church property while investigators worked. "We don't totally rule anything out."
Lt. Hubert Chapman with South Bend Fire and Rescue said passersby noticed smoke in the area about 7 a.m. and crews arrived to a fire in a back corner of the Sunday School corner that runs off the east side of the chapel. The church sits on Arkansas 294 about 3 miles east of Jacksonville
"We were able to catch it pretty quick," Chapman said, noting fire damage was contained to that part of the building. All of it suffered smoke damage.
No dollar estimate was available on the total damage, and the cause remains under investigation. Chapman said the damage was such that the church can't be occupied. Kulesa said the full extent isn't known but it is significant.
Kulesa credited the volunteer firefighters with preventing much more extensive damage.
"If they didn't respond so fast, the whole church could have gone up in flames," he said.
No one was in the church at the time, and no injuries were reported. The response for a time blocked Arkansas 294, but it had been reopened by 9:30 a.m.