CHURCH FIRES

BY BOB PRESSLER

As responding firefighters, one of the most difficult fires you may respond to is a fire in an older church or other house of worship. Fires in these structures always seem to end up one of two ways: either a one-line small fire or a full-blown heavily involved building fire.


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Photo 1. Companies are operating at a fire in this 80-year-old, stone-and-timber church. The fire is believed to have started in the basement. Smoke is seen on the inside of the church, pushing up from an area below the organ. High heat and heavy smoke drive back initial attempts to reach the seat of the fire. Conditions have continued to deteriorate since the arrival of the first companies.

What are your observations, and what do they tell you about the fire conditions? In this photo, although there is a lot of smoke, the building itself is still visible. The smoke is light in color, and although it would not be mistaken for steam, the only clues to the seriousness of the fire are the volume and intensity of the smoke as it pushes from several places along the side of church.


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Initial operations should focus on several points. One, this is a large, older church. It has plenty of void spaces to which the fire can travel and a large, open ceiling area. The fire started in the basement with probable early extension to the first floor. The initial attack probably only has one chance at an interior attack. Which size line should you stretch into the basement?

Many departments say that, because of limited initial staffing, stretching a 21/2-inch handline is out of the question. But if you look at the church, the larger size handline is necessary for several reasons. First, the fire is in a large, uncompartmented building. Second, you cannot identify the fire area at this time. Third, the visible smoke indicates that you may have an advanced fire condition. Fourth, you will need large quantities of water to penetrate to the seat of the fire if the companies can get this line into position.

Also as part of initial operations, you must formulate a plan for the worst-case scenario, with apparatus and personnel deployed in such a manner that a switch from an offensive to a defensive operation can proceed smoothly.

Photo 2. The smoke condition has changed dramatically. The color has darkened sufficiently, the volume has increased, and the smoke is exiting the building with more force. Notice where the smoke is showing. A quick look at the windows shows some smoke, but the majority of the smoke is pushing from where the outside walls meet the roof or the eave line. What does this tell you about the fire? When smoke is showing at this location, it is normally an indication that the fire is running the wall cavities. So the fire, after involving the basement, has run to the outside walls and is extending vertically up toward the attic or loft areas. The darker, heavier smoke also tells you that the fire is gaining momentum. Now comes decision time. How long can you safely employ your present tactics? When should you switch from offensive to defensive?


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Photo 3. Within minutes, the fire has overtaken the entire interior of the fire building. After spreading upward through the void spaces and floor, the fire is finding fresh fuel and oxygen in the main floor area of the church. The smoke condition be-comes horrendous, creating zero-visibility conditions in the area of the church. The fire is now working on the wooden underside of the church roof-another new source of fuel. Because of the main floor’s wide-open interior, the fire races unchecked throughout the first floor.


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Photo 4. The fire starts to break through the roof in the area above where the fire first spread to the first floor. Notice the large ember that is currently airborne. Roof coverings now become part of the fire problem. Older wood shingles can increase the ember problem, and even asphalt shingles can be carried up into the thermal column. Exposure protection becomes a serious issue.


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Photos 5, 6. As the fire began to increase in severity, back when the smoke first started to darken and increase in volume, the strategy should have switched from offensive to defensive. The original handlines were not penetrating to the seat of the fire, and conditions on the floor above, the main floor, were continuing to deteriorate. As the handlines were backed out, the master streams would take their place.


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During initial size-up of churches, identify the large front window, or “rose” window, as a possible point for setting up a master stream. The fire, as it reached the underside of the roof, started to spread horizontally in all directions. The heavy black smoke showing from the window was soon followed by heavy fire. A master stream operated into this opening can be directed up and across the main ridge. Several church fires have been successfully brought under control because of a master stream’s being operated up into the overhead from the “rose” window.


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Photos 7, 8. As the fire continues to spread unchecked throughout the church, the incident commander must establish collapse zones and evaluate all operating positions. He must order the removal of all apparatus that are in the collapse zone or that are no longer effective. The emphasis should now be on containing the fire to the original structure and protecting exposures.


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BOB PRESSLER, a 29-year veteran of the fire service, retired as a lieutenant with the Fire Department of New York. He created and produced the videos Peaked-Roof Ventilation and SCBA Safety and Emergency Procedures for the Fire Engineering video series “Bread and Butter” Operations. Pressler has an associate’s degree in fire protection engineering from Oklahoma State University, is a frequent instructor on a wide range of fire service topics, and is a member of a volunteer department.

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