fire

Los Angeles firefighter George Romero walks through what's left of the Bethesda Temple Church on Crenshaw Boulevard after an early morning blaze gutted the interior. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

A special task force of fire, police and federal agencies is investigating a church fire that erupted early Friday at a Leimert Park church.

The fire was reported before 2 a.m. at Bethesda Temple Church of the Apostolic Faith on Crenshaw Boulevard. Video showed flames tearing through church windows and plumes of black smoke climbing into the night sky.

Firefighters were on the scene within four minutes of the first call, said Los Angeles Fire Department Capt. Jaime Moore. Yet by then, the church was already fully engulfed “from stem to stern,” he said.

The church is about 50-feet-by-150-feet with scant material that would fuel a fire so quickly, he said. Yet the blaze was very intense incredibly fast, with flames reaching across the street and singeing residents' bushes, officials said.

“We’re treating it as a criminal fire at this time, until we can determine otherwise,” Moore said.

The department has brought in accelerant-detecting dogs to aid the task force’s investigation.

The task force – which includes Los Angeles Fire Department arson investigators, Los Angeles Police Department detectives, and agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and FBI – looks into all fires at places of worship, Moore said.

President Clinton formed the National Church Arson Task Force in 1996 in response to a number of church arsons in the South that year and federal and local authorities nationwide have maintained the partnership ever since.

It took 14 fire engines and more than 90 firefighters about 50 minutes to extinguish the blaze, Moore said.

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Joseph.serna@latimes.com

@josephserna