Why churches, chapels, temples, mosques are high fire risks

Why churches, chapels, temples, mosques are high fire risks
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I read many years ago about an English fire chief telling the bishop of an 11th century cathedral, “Your Holiness, firefighters can do only one of two things if fire occurs in this holy place. We can save the roof, if we break the stained-glass windows and vent smoke; or we can save the stained-glass windows if we let the roof burn off.”  The Bishop answered, “Save the stained-glass windows and let the roof burn off.” What the fire chief did not tell the bishop is that we cannot do either one.

Fire experience has shown venting the stained-glass windows will not effectively remove the smoke, heat and flame from upper portions of a high gothic ceilings. The roof will burn off even if we vent priceless stain glass. If the roof burns and collapses it can push out the side bearing wall encasing the stairs glass windows.  

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He also should have confessed to the bishop firefighters cannot extinguish a fully developed fire in a place worship.  The Notre Dame Cathedral fire put the world on notice that such holy places are in great danger from fire. Churches, chapels, temples, mosques are high fire risk structures in all our communities. If we get there early during fire growth, as  New York City firefighters did this Palm Sunday when a blaze broke out in the basement of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, Upper Manhattan, which is even larger than Notre Dame, we can stop fire and save a cathedral.

But on that Palm Sunday if the Cathedral’s 124-foot-high stone nave was filled with flame instead of smoke the outcome would have been the same as Notre Dame Cathedral.  Flames swirling at the high arch truss ceilings are beyond reach of our powerful hose streams. The large assembly worship area would allow flame to grow to a size even beyond our quick response firefighters could control.

During a fire, attics spaces quickly become involved in flame and timber truss wood beams create a lumber yard of fuel. The flames seen at the height of the Notre Dame fire were from the attic timber truss beams. Inside a place of worship there are often flammable tapestries lining stone walls, and plenty of polished wood interior decorative surfaces, and sometimes a ceiling coated with centuries of burning votive candle wax residue.

The truth is firefighters cannot stop fires like the Notre Dame Cathedral blaze.  Once fire controls the attic or fills the worship area the best firefighters can do is keep it from spreading and protect nearby buildings. Flaming convection currents threaten higher structures. Unseen radiated heat waves transmit in all directions igniting wood window frames of buildings across wide streets. Burning air borne embers fill the air for blocks around the blaze spreading fire on rooftops, in open windows and nearby wooded areas.  

One reason fire in places of worship are so difficult to extinguish is these structures do not comply with building safety codes, fire prevention statutes, or life safety regulations. Places of worship are dangers to firefighters from smoke explosions and building collapse. Superheated gases build up at ceiling level and explode also during fires, and after a blaze has been controlled there are many collapse dangers from ornate architectural features. Spires, steeples, bell towers, parapet walls, heavy chandeliers, thick plaster ceilings, timber truss arched roofs are all collapse dangers that kill firefighters.

Firefighters killed by burning place of worship fires include:

  • John Tate and Michael Moran in 1979 at Temple Gate of Zion Synagogue in Valley Stream, New York
  • James Hill and Joe Boswell in 1992 at Pilgrims Hope Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee
  • Alan Michelson in 1992 at a church roof collapse in Gillett, Wyoming
  • Brian Collins, Phil Dean and Gary Sanders in 1999 at Precious Faith Temple Church in Lakeworth, Texas
  • Richard Stefanakis and Charles Brace in 2004 at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Pittsburgh
  • Scott Davis in 2011 at the Tabernacle of Praise Church in Muncie, Indiana

The cause of the Notre Dame Cathedral fire has not been determined. Historically, arson is a leading cause of fire in places of worship. For example, in Opelousas, Louisiana, a man is being held suspected of starting fires at three black churches. It is impossible to prevent arson fires in places of worship but strong security program can limit risks, Other leading causes of fires in churches chapel, synagogues and mosques are electric wire, heating units, cooking and candles, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

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During an inspection of a place of worship a fire chief should have a frank discussion with the person in charge, explaining reasons why manual firefighting is not successful, and recommend the most effective way to insure survival of an irreplaceable, historic place of worship is to install an automatic sprinkler systems and smoke detectors. Water damage is one of the reasons automatic sprinkler systems are not considered for places of worship filled with historic artifacts. However, water damage is more likely from firefighter hose streams than from automatic sprinkler discharge.

Considering all this, Paris pompiers were very effective at this historic Notre Dame cathedral fire. They used a defensive and offensive strategy to successfully combat the fire. Flames coming from the fully involved roof attic were controlled using an aerial master stream, preventing fire spread to nearby structures. Firefighters then carefully and safely changing strategy to offense, by entering, searching and recovering priceless religious objects. As we say in the New York City Fire Department, “They did a good job.” 

Vincent Dunn is a former New York City deputy fire chief. Dunn is a 42-year veteran serving as division commander of midtown Manhattan.  He is the author of several books, including, “Building Construction the Firefighters Battlespace.”