Fire attack: Old churches, big problems

They don't burn often, but when they do legacy churches can hurt or kill firefighters in many ways


For the large majority of us, our bread-and-butter fires are the single-family home. Our curriculums, our training programs and our tactics are, for the most part, based on this fire. The videos and photos we go over are also mostly single-family structure fires.

Our apparatus are set up with hose lays that are common lengths that will reach the farthest point in a residential-building fire. It's what we do, and we do it well.

Every now and then we are faced with a fire that challenges the norm. We have considered most of these fires, but have not done much specific training for them. They could be commercial occupancies like strip malls, eating establishments, warehouses and industrial areas.

Understand your response area and building construction when responding to a church fire. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Understand your response area and building construction when responding to a church fire. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

We are pretty good at keeping our people safe at those fires. Most are unoccupied or have smaller numbers of occupants who have plenty of time to evacuate.

Firefighter safety in legacy churches

And then there's another type of infrequent, but very challenging fire. It is an occupancy with many faces and we all have plenty of these in our response areas. They can be used at varying time of the day and many house large populations of children.

We are talking about churches.

History tells us that these fires are dangerous and can kill firefighters. We have lost and injured firefighters in some pretty historic church fires. Each had it's own challenges and problems created by the building style and difficulty in getting to the seat of the fire.

There are two very basic, but broad categories: old church characteristics and modern church characteristics. Let's consider the legacy church.

Legacy churches are beautiful structures. Built from the members of the church either physically or conceptually, the character of the religion and the congregation are built into the church itself.

Extremely ornate styles and finishes make these structures very valuable and irreplaceable. This creates an emotional response, not only from the church members, but also from the firefighters responding who try their best to save the history of the building.

Church construction and fire behavior

These legacy churches are very sturdy, built with true dimensional lumber, heavy timber and/or masonry. Those construction styles allowed for very large, high open ceilings and spaces, which lets fire, heat and smoke travel easily.

The high ceilings may have an attic or man space above them with catwalks for access to lights and fixtures. Some of these false ceilings can hide fire for long time and may be made of foam, plaster or wood.

Many of the old churches were built with buttresses or flying buttresses. This type of construction has a high possibility of failure when fire is high in the building and attacks the open-spanned construction.

Additionally, the original construction characteristics may have been altered by updates and expansion. With the high ceilings and steep roof angles, vertical ventilation is not always possible; horizontal ventilation may be ineffective due to the building's interior volume.

The original interior finishes were likely noncombustible, similar to the exterior wall construction materials. Over time, with additions updating these interior finishes will very likely be of more modern materials.

Many of these churches were built long before sprinkler systems. Regardless of the interior finish, there is plenty of fuel in these buildings, and fire will grow unchecked without sprinklers. Unless the building has been recently renovated, don't look for any suppression systems.

It's uncommon to have occupants during a church fire, but don't assume the building is empty. They can be used for meetings and many operate daycare or elementary schools on site. If conditions allow, conduct a search — this will challenge any fire department.

Use large hose lines for church fires

The large interior building volume will require big water for most of these fires. Consider using large lines to protect exposures, including interior exposures.

Even with larger hose sizes, there may not be enough stream reach to cover the large open spaces. This has to be considered when deploying initial companies.

Because these fires can get a big head start, it can be extremely dangerous to put crews on the interior. Initial application of water from the exterior may be optimal prior to putting crews inside.

Church fires have a high frequency of being set fires due to their being places of worship. Understand that set fires are extremely dangerous to fire companies and they have a huge head start on responding units.

With large steeples and tall exterior walls, consider your collapse zone and operate safely outside of it.

There is a great deal more to know about legacy church fires. But with the basics in hand and firm understanding of your response area, you should be well prepared for one of the most dangerous of our uncommon fires.

Until next time, train hard and stay engaged in the fire service.

This article was originally posted on Nov. 5, 2013. It has been updated. 

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