Everyone is familiar with the fire in April 2019 that devastated Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. What is not so well known is that fires in parish churches in England occur very frequently, and have just as devastating effects. It is no exaggeration to say that a fire in a village church can profoundly impact a small community, not just in the loss of a place of worship or the destruction of priceless historic interiors, but also in the eradication of personal and family memories and the folk history of a particular place.
No matter how carefully it is restored, a fire-ravaged church will never be the same afterwards.
There are approximately two thousand fires a year in churches in the United Kingdom. The majority are caused by accident, rather than arson. Incidents of arson can be split into burglary-related arson, and deliberate vandalism. Deliberate arson is relatively rare, but must always be considered a potential threat.
Historic churches are particularly vulnerable to fires, as they are often unattended for long periods. If there is no fire alarm system in place a fire can remain undetected until it is too late to put out easily. Smoke damage in an historic interior can be extremely destructive.
Electrical causes are a major source of church fires. These can range from the malfunction of electric bell-ringing apparatus to clumsy and inappropriate use of electrical heaters. Given the antiquated state of electrical wiring in churches, with many not rewired since the 1960s, it is not surprising that hundreds of fires occur. Extension leads run under carpets, for example, will eventually wear through if left long enough, exposing bare wires. Long extension leads used while still coiled can dangerously heat up. Quinquennial inspections do not tend to look at electrical safety aspects, and so it is the responsibility of the churchwardens or the incumbent to make sure the church electrics are safe.
All electrical systems must be installed to current IEE standards by electrical contractors enrolled with the National Inspection Council for Electrical Installation Contracting, or with the Electrical Contractors Association. Electrical systems should be inspected every five years in accordance with IEE regulations and an inspection certificate obtained. Appliances should be checked regularly for broken plugs, frayed cables and other obvious defects.
Building works are a particular time of vulnerability for churches due to the prevalence of naked flames and flammable chemicals. Risk assessments should be carried out before any building work commences. Contractors should be required to store all flammable materials well away from the church and remove them at night.
Other points to consider:
- Fires in churches can generate towering flames and hot gases at very high temperatures – up to 800 °C or 1500 °F. Heated stone can crack if suddenly cooled, and therefore water needs to be applied with caution.
- Stained glass will have lead joints which can melt in the heat.
- Be mindful of the amount of flammable dust that can accumulate in corners and cavities of ancient buildings.
- Old boilers and chimney flues need to be checked regularly and the flues swept.
- All churches should have at least two portable fire extinguishers; one with water for putting out fires of organic material such as wood and paper, and a carbon dioxide extinguisher for fighting electrical fires. These should be checked and refilled at least annually under a maintenance contract. Just as important is that the equipment is easy to find, not hidden from sight or locked away in the vestry, and that staff and volunteers know how to use it.
- Early detection is the most important element in minimising the damage of any fire that might break out. Smoke detectors around the building, connected to a local alarm on the church and to a fire alarm monitoring centre will ensure that if the alarm goes off it won’t be ignored. Take professional advice on the location of smoke detectors, as in large spaces such as a church nave smoke may not necessarily travel straight up.
- Fire protection systems are an obvious means of reducing a fire risk. Building on a Professional Risk Assessment fire alarms for churches can be designed to conform with the installation standard of BS5839 Part 1, 2017. Designs can be tailored for protection of the church, the protection of lives, or simply a manual system which can be used to evacuate the building. Automatic fire detection is installed to suit the church environment, for instance point detection, fire beams, and aspirated detection. Monitored systems can alert keyholders whenever there is an incident. The installation of fire alarms is encouraged by discounted insurance premiums (five to 15 per cent by Ecclesiastical).
Building Conservation Directory.
Photograph attribution: Richard Humphrey.