Built To Burn

The fire of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris made news throughout the world. Though the walls and vaulted ceiling are made of stone, the peaked roof was a forest of timbers over 800 years old. That old, dry wood and the large volume of open space was the ideal recipe for a raging inferno.

A former New York City fire chief, in talking about historic churches built in a style similar to Notre Dame, said, “These cathedrals are built to burn. If they weren’t houses of worship, they’d be condemned.”

Churches built with buttresses or flying buttresses (architectural elements which push back against the way walls want to sag outwards) have a high chance of failure during a fire. The flames quickly attack such an open-spanned construction, most of which don’t have fire sprinkler systems in place and provide plenty of fuel. The large, high, open ceilings let fire, heat, and smoke travel easily.

To add to the power of the conflagration, church fires are more likely to be caused by arson. According to a Pew Research Center analysis, about half of U.S. church fires in the 20 years leading up to 2015 were intentionally set. Since arsonists tend to use some sort of accelerant, such as gasoline, these fires will have a big head start against responding fire crews.

Left: exterior sprinkler deluge system, Christ Church, Philadelphia. Right: Cathedral of the Holy Cross renovation, Boston.

The good news is there’s a growing trend of old churches getting fitted with fire sprinklers. The Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston, a church dedicated in 1875, has added new sprinkler and fire protection systems as part of a renovation. Christ Church in Philadelphia has an open-headed deluge sprinkler system installed on its steeple, a wooden fixture built in 1754. In case of a fire, about 30 sprinkler heads on the spire’s surface open up and covers the steeple in a literal deluge of water. And St. Patrick’s cathedral in New York City, built in 1878, installed a sprinkler system during recent renovations and coated its wooden roof with fire retardant.

Even all 19 museums of the Smithsonian, housing 155 million historic objects and specimens, have been retrofitted with sprinklers.

When protecting the irreplaceable (the timbers in the roof of Notre Dame were from 5,000 oak trees that were 300 to 400 years old when harvested – trees of that stature no longer exist in France) fire sprinklers make such simple sense, containing fires and preventing their growth, if not outright extinguishing the blaze even before first responders arrive on scene.

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