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18 April 2019
The devastating fire at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris has left people with a lot of unanswered questions: What caused the fire? How was it tackled? What can we learn from it?
The origin of the blaze is not yet clear, and likely won't be for days or even weeks to come, but it is said to have started near scaffolding at the spire, eventually spreading across the rest of the lead-covered, wooden roof, the interior of which was dubbed "the forest" for how much wood it required to build.
The initial focus of the upcoming investigation is on the construction workers who were participating in the multi-million-pound renovation effort prior to the fire. However, by the time fire alarms began going off, the workmen appear to have left for the day.
Glenn Corbett, an associate professor of fire science at John Jay College told the New York Times that “There’s a history of churches and synagogues and other houses of worship falling victim to construction fires.”
He further explained that this is often caused by the open flames and sparks associated with welding and similar construction hazards combined with flammable materials like the wooden beams that made up the interior of Notre-Dame's roof.
Vincent Dunn, a fire consultant, told the New York Times that, due to the height and architecture of the cathedral, fire hose streams were not able to reach Notre Dame's roof and that fighting the fire on foot required a challenging climb up winding steps to reach the upper areas of the building.
“These cathedrals and houses of worship are built to burn,” he said. “If they weren’t houses of worship, they’d be condemned.”
The local firefighters, the Paris Pompiers, had limited options. "They can try to cool the fire by putting vast quantities of water onto the building to extinguish the burning areas, or to cool other areas to prevent fire spread," Keith Atkinson, a fire safety consultant at Heritage and Ecclesiastical Fire Protection, said.
"Venting areas, such as making holes on roofs, or the roofs naturally collapsing will also help to cool the fire. Firefighters might even deliberately destroy areas that are not yet burning, in order to create a fire-break to prevent spread."
Other tactics used may have included spraying stones and windows to reduce temperature and to prevent the fire spreading elsewhere in the cathedral.
Although it raises the risk of water damage, it may have allowed more time to remove furniture, artwork and religious pieces.
Steve Emery, Oxford University fire officer and formerly the fire safety adviser at English Heritage, commented, “One of the issues with putting water on the fire is the internal masonry ceiling, the fan-vaulted ceiling where it meets the walls.
"If you put too much water in, it fills up the conoid, and then there's the risk of the internal ceiling collapsing."
As much as the Notre Dame fire is a tragedy, information gleaned from studying it will be invaluable in protecting other buildings.
"Fire brigades are trained to rescue people and last night the Paris Pompiers used their skills to save universal and invaluable art. They did a fine job, and how they tackled this fire will probably be studied in the years ahead."
Town and Country magazine