Metro

Strong storms hit area; tornado confirmed in R.I.

Trees came down in Lincoln, R.I., after a tornado moved through the town.
Joe DelliCarpini/National Weather Service
Trees came down in Lincoln, R.I., after a tornado moved through the town.

Powerful thunderstorms on Tuesday swept through Eastern Massachusetts, where lightning sparked a massive fire that destroyed a historic church in Wakefield, funnel clouds were spotted off Cape Cod, and a tornado touched down in Rhode Island.

Pea-size hail and high winds downed trees and wires and temporarily knocked out power to thousands as the line of strong thunderstorms moved through the region at 30 miles per hour, according to the National Weather Service.

In Rhode Island, a tornado touched down in Lincoln at 3:30 p.m., the weather service said. “Additional survey work will be necessary on Wednesday to determine further details regarding this tornado,” the service said in a statement.

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Preliminary survey work was also being done in North Providence, according to forecasters. There was no determination as of Tuesday night regarding whether a tornado had touched down in that community.

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Lincoln Fire Chief Timothy Walsh said the tornado there severely damaged homes and sparked fires. “Everybody was in a panic in the streets,” he said at the scene, noting that residents worried about gas leaks had left their homes.

In Massachusetts, two funnel clouds were reported over the water in Sandwich, at 2:20 p.m. and at 6:20 p.m., said Bill Simpson, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Norton. Both went over the Cape Cod Canal, northeast across town, and then into Cape Cod Bay. No damage was reported, he said.

Lightning strikes apparently forced emergency landings of two planes, one at Logan International Airport in Boston and the other at Bradley International Airport in Connecticut, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

In Wakefield, a seven-alarm fire tore through First Baptist Church, sending flaming chunks of the white building to the ground and forcing firefighters to attack from several angles. The main roof of the nearly 150-year-old church collapsed, and long windows were blown out of the building, which is at 8 Lafayette St., near the town center.

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The building was a total loss, Fire Chief Michael Sullivan said.

He said the fire was most likely caused by lightning but “it’s going to be extremely difficult to determine the cause,” due to the extensive damage.

Firefighters responded at 7 p.m. to an automatic alam from the church. More than 100 firefighters from two dozen communities north of Boston responded. They were expected to remain through the night.

“The extent of the fire on arrival was just too great for us to stop it,” Sullivan said at the scene. “It’s a shame — beautiful church, and we feel bad about that, but there’s really nothing we could do.”

The church, near the Town Common, is a beloved town landmark. The fire drew dozens of onlookers.

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“It just went up,” said Matt French, 32, a construction worker who lives about four houses from the church. People got emotional as they watched the fire sweep through the building, he said.

“It’s old, so it’s going to go up quick,” he added.

Ed Dombrowski, a Wakefield town councilor who lives about two blocks from the church, said the building was one of the most beautiful properties in town, a quintessential New England structure — “an icon of our skyline.”

Elsewhere, the weather service fielded reports of trees and wires down in several towns south of Boston.

More than 4,000 utility customers were without power in Massachusetts as of 4:47 p.m., including 2,170 in Norton, according to the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency. By 9 p.m., the number was down to 731.

In Norton, downed power lines affected transformers in the area of Mansfield Avenue and Reservoir Street. Only three homes were severely affected, but more than 10 trees were downed from Reservoir Street to about 1,200 feet across the road.

A property on Mansfield Avenue sustained “major structural damage to a garage,” and another house had minor damage along its roof line, Norton fire-rescue Captain Jason Robbins said.

The sudden burst of thunderstorms surprised some.

Tom Shipley was walking his dog, Sophie, on Reservoir Street across from the Norton Reservoir next to the intersection of Elm Street around 6:30 p.m. He said he lost power to his home around 4:30 p.m. and heard “a lot of thunder,” but “there was no wind at all.”

“That was the weird thing about it.”

Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Jackson Cote can be reached at jackson.cote@globe.com. Adam Sennott can be reached at adam.sennott@globe.com.