Places of worship risk review

27 June 2019

Adair Lewis examines the recent figures for fires in places of worship across the UK, post Notre-Dame.

Following the recent fire at Notre-Dame in Paris, it would be timely to have a look at how we are faring in the UK with fires in places of worship. It is now 35 years since we had a fire of a similar magnitude, when the south transept roof of York Minster was destroyed. 

Flames were seen coming from the roof at 2.35am on the night of 9 July 1989, following a lightning strike. This fire appears to have been on a similar scale to that at Notre-Dame, with 114 firefighters attacking the flames while clergy and volunteers were recovering as many artefacts as could safely be removed from the burning building. 

In the case of York Minster it took four years, 260 oak trees and £2.25m to rebuild, and although it was finally agreed to rebuild the roof with timber, key parts of the structure are now covered with plaster. Again, much like Notre-Dame, the 16th century rose window remained intact, though it suffered an estimated 40,000 cracks. The successful replacement of the roof and saving of the window are good omens for the future of one of the most iconic buildings in Paris.

Since York Minster, there has been no major fire in a cathedral or religious building of similar status in the UK. However, since January 2009, a total of 55 fires have taken place, resulting in losses in excess of £100,000. Some 46 of these have been in churches and chapels, with one in a mosque, one in a temple and seven classified in the database as being ‘others’.

With 84% of the large loss fires in religious buildings having occurred in churches and chapels, it is not surprising that the causes of the incidents are statistically very similar, with about a third being caused accidentally and a half deliberately (the cause of the fire in the mosque is unknown, and the temple fire was accidental).

Similarly, the times that the fires occurred are very similar in the main and sub groups, with about 35% occurring between 6pm and 6am (the time of the mosque fire is unknown, and the temple fire took place in the evening).

It is a sad reflection of our times that earlier in our lifetimes, churches were often open to allow people to enter for a period of reflection or prayer, whereas now they have – for very good reasons – been kept secure. This is reflected in the fact that on five occasions, firefighters experienced problems gaining access to a place of worship when responding to a fire. But it is hard to criticise; a little damage and perhaps a small delay in commencing firefighting operations is a price that has to be paid for maintaining the security of these often historic buildings and their valuable range of contents.

Looking at the insurance components of the losses, it is the buildings themselves that form the major part of the losses (over 90%) with the value of the contents (some 4%) being surprisingly small in view of the various artworks, ceremonial plates and vessels, and organ that will be present.

We last looked at fires in religious buildings more than five years ago, and it is a little sad to see that the proportion of fires started deliberately has remained at about 50%. It is also sad to reveal that the average cost of a major fire has increased from £466,000 to over £600,000 in this period. But there is good news – there were 37 major fires in the first five years of this survey and only 18 in the second five years. It is also good to see that political events and unrest have not led to an increase in the numbers of large fires in the places of worship for any particular faith.

Loss Analysis Table

The large losses are partially due to the form of construction of the buildings in this category. Traditional places of worship tend to be large, open, lofty buildings with towers, spires and hidden cavities, and these present a bigger challenge to firefighters than more modern places of worship. The problem in traditional buildings is that, while the walls and pillars may be made of stone, the roof, screens and other internal partitions will predominantly be wooden. Together with a wooden floor and pews or other forms of seating, this presents a considerable fire load, which will allow a small fire to develop and spread very rapidly indeed. Witnesses have described how, once having reached a timber roof, flames have spread above them faster than they can run out of the building.

Other than lighting, potential ignition sources tend to be at low level, with electrical equipment and candles being the most hazardous. Almost all religions involve flames in their ceremonies, most commonly in the form of large altar candles, memorial candles or ghee lamps. Altar candles can burn for days and may easily be forgotten when a building is locked at the end of the day. There have been instances where these have burnt low and collapsed, resulting in a fire igniting a carpet, screen or decorations. 

Wherever it is practicable, candles should be replaced by battery operated, flame effect candles. Where there is no acceptable alternative to their use, care must be taken and checks made to ensure that all candles are snuffed out prior to the building being left unoccupied.

The fire safety message should be emphasised to all users of the building, including leaders of various groups that may make use of the premises such as choirs, musicians and those responsible for providing tea and arranging flowers. This is especially important in modern buildings which, instead of having a separate church hall, provide space for social functions, wedding receptions and similar gatherings – as well as praise and worship – in the main building. 

All staff who may officiate at services and ceremonies must be on the alert for anything out of the ordinary that may be introduced into the building, particularly at Christmas, Easter and the times of other festivals. It is important that while the large open space in many modern places of worship lends itself to use by both sectarian and non sectarian groups for a wide range of purposes, fire prevention must be at the heart of the message to all users.

Adair Lewis is technical consultant at the Fire Protection Association.