A fire on July 8 caused extensive damage to the basement of the Idaho-Oregon Buddhist Temple — but didn’t postpone plans two days later for what turned out to be a moving and memorable Obon service.
The apparent cause was a faulty electrical outlet, according to IOBT Co-President Mike Iseri.
“My first thoughts were being thankful that outward appearances showed the fire started in the basement and not upstairs,” Iseri said. “I did have a fear for the Nokotsudo, but it is at the opposite end of the building.”
The upstairs Hondo, Onaijin and Nokotsudo suffered smoke damage, but were otherwise spared.
Iseri said the temple’s burglar alarm prompted a call at about 7:40 a.m. July 8. The fire alarm system uses motion sensors and it apparently picked up smoke movement.
The fire began in the large activity room, and also damaged the kitchen because of high heat and smoke. At least two taiko drums were destroyed and others were compromised because of heat and water damage. Two commercial refrigerators, a residential refrigerator and a small freezer were also destroyed, as were most of the tables and inventory of supplies.
The floor tile has asbestos, and the temple is still awaiting hazardous material test results for plaster, paint and ceiling tile, Iseri said.
Fire damage was initially estimated around $750,000, Iseri said. But he said this estimate is before “anything has been assessed and before an adjuster has been on site.”
The fire departments — from Ontario in Oregon, and Fruitland and Payette in Idaho — were on the scene within five to 10 minutes, Iseri said. High heat and smoke impeded their efforts, but one of the firefighters knew the layout of the basement and was able to lead the others, he said.
The fire occurred two days before the temple’s Obon service. A taiko performance, Bon Odori dancing and a bento takeout for lunch had been planned.
“At first, we thought we’d have to cancel, but the leadership team agreed that we should still hold the service and keep to the schedule as much as possible,” Iseri said.
The Obon service was held — outside — under the awning. “It was a very moving and meaningful service in the wake of the fire,” he said.
Power has been restored outside and upstairs in the temple building, but because of toxic air, the building remains off-limits.
The basement served as the vital Social Hall for the temple. But since the pandemic, use of the hall has declined sharply. It is used for taiko practice and for food preparation when the temple has had takeout lunches.
It hasn’t been determined yet where the taiko group will practice and the taiko drums need to be evaluated, according to Iseri.
Sangha member Larry Matsumura is the owner of Matsy’s Restaurant in Ontario, Oregon, and is a caterer for the Four Rivers Cultural Center in Ontario, and the temple has been able to use Matsumura’s facilities since the fire.
One memorial service that had been scheduled at the temple was moved to the Four Rivers Cultural Center.
A local church and housing development have offered their available space for the temple’s use, Iseri said.
He said the temple will continue to hold its monthly services outside under the awning this summer.
Iseri said that donations to help the temple can also be processed from the Idaho-Oregon Buddhist Temple website, http://www.iobt.org — the link to donate is on the right side of the home page.
The mailing address is: Idaho-Oregon Buddhist Temple, P.O. Box 397, Ontario, Oregon, 97914-0397.
For Bishop Rev. Marvin Harada, the news of the fire hit particularly hard.
“The Idaho-Oregon Buddhist Temple is my home temple,” he said. “I have many memories of the basement that was destroyed by the fire. We used to have a Hanamatsuri program there, in which each Dharma School class had to do something. It was an all ages program that was long, but was so much fun. There was odori, funny skits, and some musical talent. All of the funeral otokis were held in the basement. My parents used to play cards there with friends and members every week.
“It will take a lot to rebuild the basement, but we are grateful that the upstairs Hondo was not burned, but still has smoke damage,” he continued. “I am confident that it will be rebuilt.”
Iseri took more than 40 photos of the first damage, but said the most important photo to him is that of the Hondo.
“This single photo reassures all that the Onaijin survived,” he said, “That can be contrasted with the worst of the photos from the basement. We were very lucky. We are also very lucky for our Sangha, leaders, friends, family, neighbors, and all who have expressed concern.
“With everyone’s help and encouragement, it makes moving forward less daunting,” Iseri continued. “I think Buddhist teaching and perspective go a long way in helping us.”
He said the Northwest Buddhist Convention will continue as planned from Sept. 16-18 at Four Rivers Cultural Center in Ontario. The convention is a joint 75th anniversary event with IOBT.