Fire Toll High in Churches and Religious Occupancies

Fire Toll High in Churches and Religious Occupancies

Prevention and Control of Such Fires Poses Problem for Fire Service

THERE were in continental United States in 1947, 250 religious bodies with 253,762 churches and an inclusive membership of 73,673,182 as compared with 256 Religious Bodies with 199,302 churches and a membership of 55,807,366 in 1936 (U. S. Bureau of Census). In addition, there are countless religious schools, academies, hospitals, convents and other religious and semi-religious institutions.

There is not a community of any size in this country that does not possess one or more churches. Religious meeting places are likewise to be found in rural districts, at cross-roads, far from political subdivisions and in some cases, distant from any organized fire protection.

The property value of these vast religious holdings is not known but it runs into the billions of dollars. The task of protecting this wealth of property and the lives of parishioners from consuming fire is the responsibility of the nation’s fire services.

The question logically follows, how effective is this protection? Is there room lor improvement? If so, what can be done, and by whom?

This study attempts to answer these and related questions.

Church Losses High—and Continuing

At the outset, it can be safely stated that churches of ordinary construction have a bad fire record.

The record, although incomplete, indicates that over the past four decades fire has destroyed more than a quarter of a billion dollars worth of churches and religious properties. This destruction is said to be continuing at the rate of approximately $5,000,000 per year in churches alone.

In the period 1919-1920 the National Board of Fire Underwriters reported church losses (including chapels) of $6,183,338. There were 3,500 fires, or an average of approximately five church fires daily. The report showed that only 62 per cent of these losses were insured.

Sta+istics Do Not Give True Loss Picture

The available data show a high loss ratio in the per cent of loss to property involved in church fires; it indicates, also, that contents losses are a much smaller proportion of the entire loss than is true of most occupancies.

What the figures do not tell, how-ever, is the total destruction measured in terms of the loss of priceless, irreplaceable historic relics, heirlooms and records. Commenting on this detail, the National Board of Fire Underwriters said (Feb. 1922): ‘‘In many instances, besides the money loss involved (in church fires) irreparable damage is done to historical paintings and manuscripts.” The Board pointed to the destruction of the Plymouth Church, Brooklyn, and the loss of priceless documents including original sermons by Henry Ward Beecher, written during his pastorate, as well as his portrait and rare stained glass windows.

In most cases, church fire losses are felt by entire parishes, where people in all w’alks of life contributed of their savings to erect the churches that were lost. To rebuild fire wrecked structures under these conditions is a discouraging task, especially in view of the widespread under-insurance of such properties.

Discussing these losses, the National Board said “There is a good deal of discussion these days to the effect that the congregations attending places of worship on the Sabbath are not as large as they ought to be; in other words, that the people are leaving the churches. Inview of the fire loss record . . . however, it would seem that the churches are leaving the people.”

Denominations Affected by Church Fires

Fire plays no favorites in ravishing religious property. As the National Fire Protection Association says: “Divine Providence, which would appear to be generally the principal reliance for the safety of churches, has not exempted these structures from destruction by fire.”

The Association submits the following figures, phased on a study of 656 church fires to” show how indiscriminately fire visits places of worship of different creeds and sects.



Roman Catholic ……… 202

Baptist …………………….. 86

Presbyterian …………….. 60

Methodist-Episcopal …………. 48

Congregational ……. 45

Methodist ………………….. 4.3

Episcopal ………….. 39

Lutheran …………………… 25

Christian …………………… 13

Hebrew Synagogue or Temple…. 11

Evangelical .. ………………. 10

United …………………….. 9

Community …………………. 7

Unitarian …………………… 6

Greek Orthodox………….. 6

All others (less than 6 each)…. 46


Causes of Fires in Churches

Most church fires can he attributed to a few common causes, which are easily recognized and due to readily preventable hazards. Over a period of 20 years these causes have varied but little in relative importance.

According to records maintained by this journal, checked against those data released by other authorities, by far the majority of such fires are due to, or related to the heating system. Nearly 35 per cent of church fires are caused by defective or overheated furnaces or stoves, or faulty chimneys or flues. If one includes kindred causes, such as gas stoves, oil stoves and lamps, oil burners, overheated steam pipes, the total exceeds 40 per cent.

At Livermore Falls, Me., a $100,000 Fira Destroyed the St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church. Part of Roof (Left) Starts to Collapse as Volunteers Man a LineOnly the Burned Walls of This Old Church Remained Reported started by a vindictive crack-pot, fire raged rapidly through the large St. Anne's Roman Catholic Church in Philadelphia. Note ineffectual streams directed into auditorium. Size, age and location of this old structure handicapped fire fighters.

The second most prevalent cause is the electrical system. Defective wiring, either in the lighting system, or in connection with the operation of the organ, is responsible for over 16 per cent of church fires. If to this is added lightning as a cause, the total exceeds 23 per cent.

Incendiary causes stand fourth on nearly all lists of church fires and in some areas set fires rank almost equal in number with electrical fires.

Although one might not immediately associate smoking as a cause of fires in religious structures, it is well up in the van of the list of reasons. While about every twentieth church fire is attributed to candles or vigil lights, better than one out of every twenty-five is the result of smoking.

Other causes are: sparks on combustible roofs; rubbish; exposure; spontaneous ignition of oily material or soft coal; hot ashes; blow torches; gas explosions; sparks from tinsmith or roofers’ equipment; motion picture film, etc.

A large percentage of church fires cannot be laid to any specific cause. Many fire officers are of the opinion that the classifications “unknown” or ‘‘undetermined cause” cover many fires either deliberately or unwittingly set.

Loss of Life

Although the average monetary loss in church fires is large, fortunately there have thus far been no holocausts involving serious loss of life in American or Canadian churches. This is no doubt due to the fact that church fires seldom occur while the structures are occupied by congregations of worshipers.

The possibilities of heavy loss of life are great, however. Panic is just as possible with a religious congregation as it is with a night club or theatre audience. The worst church disaster on record occurred in Santiago, Chile, in December, 1833, when, as a result of panic induced by fire, some 2,000 persons, comprising most of the congregation, were killed. More recently, on April 18, 1930, 144 persons met death when a panic ensued during a fire in a church in Gaesti, Roumania.

In this country, some lives have been lost as a result of fires in parish halls, convents and other religious properties but life losses in churches have been negligible and have in the main been the result of the ignition of clothing by vigil lights or altar candles. A large percentage of these casualties were among nuns or other religious workers.

In Baltimore, on December 6, 1944, a flash fire which swept the one-story frame parish hall of St. Ambrose’s Church, resulted in the deaths of six persons and injuries to fifty. The fire, of unknown origin, and resulting panic, occurred while about 200 persons were playing cards and bingo games.

A somewhat similar catastrophe occurred on January 27, 1927, when six persons were killed and twelve seriously injured, following an explosion of acetylene gas from a lighting system in the Chapel of Latter Day Saints, Turner, Idaho. The blast came when about 200 persons were assembled in the frame chapel and recreation hall for a basketball game and someone lighted a match when lighting system failed.

Although church tires have resulted in little loss of life to members of congregations, they have been more destructive on the tire service. Many tiremen have been killed or injured in operations on church fires

One of the worst disasters occurred on March 7, 1921, when four firemen were killed and one injured by falling walls when fire destroyed the Jackson Avenue Evangelical Sunday School in New Orleans, La. Ten years later a battalion chief was killed and five other firemen were injured when the roof of the frame Campbell A. M. E. Church in Washington, D. C., collapsed during a fire. The next year a fireman died following a 3-alarm fire in St. Francis de Assissi Church, Cambridge. Mass., and in June of 1933 another fireman met death and four were injured when an aerial ladder broke while they were fighting a fire in the Our Lady of Lourdes Church, in Toronto. A fire captain lost his life in Holyoke, Mass., in 1934, when the St. Jerome’s Catholic Church was destroyed, and less than two years later, a volunteer fireman succumbed during efforts to save the Holy Cross Memorial Methodist Chapel, in Reading, Pa.

Time of Fires

It has been said that the majority of church fires are due to the heating systern or the heating or lighting of the church. Exclusive of fires iu parish houses or sections of the church used for weekday meetings, which may occur at any time, the majority of church fires occur after or before weekly services. This is particularly true in winter.

During the cold weather, churches as a rule, are used only Sundays. During the balance of the week they are wholly or partially unheated. On Saturday night or early Sunday, the heating system is forced in order to warm the church building for Sunday services. This forcing of the heating system, in many churches of insufficient size for the heating task, results in fire.

Aerial Ladders Facilitate Roof Work in Church Fires Staten Island, N. Y., firemen attacking a three-alarm blaze in church attic, from above. Aerial ladder operations afford greater safety from roof collapse. Eire in fashionable 90-ycar-old St. Mary's Episcopal Church.

Surveys of causes show also, that church fires appear to increase in number not only on or immediately following the Sabbath, hut after weddings or other affairs where the building is used for other than religious services. Many churches hold social, fraternal and civic gatherings in either the parish house or hall, or the church itself. Some fires run current with these meetings, or immediately following them.

Usually the months of February and March record the greatest number of church fire’s, and highest losses in church property. In the year 1947, for example, FIRE ENGINEERING recorded 44 churches or chapels destroyed by fire and 15 damaged (including one rectory). In addition, there were five convents, schools or seminaries damaged, and one destroyed. The heaviest losses occurred in February with seven churches destroyed and six (including a seminary) damaged. March was next with nine destroyed and one damaged. April was third, with seven wrecked and three (including a rectory and hall) damaged.

Delayed Discovery and Alarm Prevalent

The fire records disclose that in a majority of church fires which resulted in total loss, the discovery of the fire was tardy, and the notification to the fire department correspondingly delayed.

This is indicated in the before-mentioned studies which show that over 60 per cent of the reported fires were detected by persons outside the church who were neither members of the church nor employed in it. Over 11 per cent of fires were reported discovered by parishioners, and only 19.3 per cent were said to he discovered by sexton, janitor or minister or priest. Policemen were given credit for detecting 3.5 per cent of the fires.

Incendiary Fires on the Increase?

Previously, incendiarism was listed as the known cause of about seven out of 100 reported church fires. Actually, the percentage is greater. Some authorities believe set fires in churches are on the increase.

As long as churches are the objects of crackpots, cranks and radicals, and are so easy to enter and touch off, and make such spectacular blazes, they will he the target of incendiaries.

Contributing Factors

In addition to the known causes of church fires, previously discussed, there are other factors which have contributed to the high loss ratio.

Churches are “plants of slow growth.” Economy is a prime requisite in their erection. This has of necessity resulted in the use of combustible materials and of the minimum of safeguards, such as fire stops, improved heating, and wiring systems, and fire detection and extinguishing systems. The desire to adhere to a general architectural period or style has also encouraged the use of combustible material.

Economy necessitates holding church salaried personnel to the very minimum. It is rare that even in large churches there is more than one handyman to stoke the furnace, clean the premises, etc. Watchmen’s service is out of the question for all but the largest, most affluent churches.

A further contributing factor is the lack of education and training given the church personnel on fire and its hazards. The result is that employes are usually incapable of handling an incipient fire or even of the procedure for calling the fire department.

The expanding social and other work of the church today calls for its greater use as a social or community center, or meeting place. During World War II, the church was the hub of much civic and social activity, such as waste paper and other war drives, and in civilian defense. These extra-curricular activities have resulted in greater use of kitchens, showing of motion pictures and adoption of radio and television, with consequent increased fire hazards.

Another factor, perhaps not appreciated, is location. Churches are found in greater numbers in residential areas, where municipal fire protection is generally weakest. Water supplies are limited: fire hydrants and fire alarm boxes are further apart. In many cases, church buildings are set well back from the street. Some are on eminences. Many are wholly or partially surrounded by trees or other plantings, to complicate fire fighting operations. There is only one attribute in such isolated locations; that is the reduction in fire exposure hazards.

The fire service itself is not blameless when it comes to contributing causes for church losses. Fire officers have been loath to visit and inspect houses of worship and religious properties in any official capacity. In many communities, first-due fire companies (as well as other units) are ignorant as’ to design, construction and occupancy hazards of churches in their areas. Some departments have gone out of their way to make friends of local pastors and clerics, hut have not enlisted the cooperation of church authorities to’ study, and possibly correct fire hazards in the church. Few fire departments have seriously studied the possibilities of fires in such edifices and fewer still have conducted drills on the church properties in question. Alltoo-often the initiative for instituting better church fire safety has had to be taken by church authorities.

Fire Destroyed the Fifty-One-Year-Old St. Mary’s Catholic Church at North Grafton, Mass., with a Loss of $75,000Wooden Churches Prove Ready Prey to Flames Once under headway fire in these wooden religious structures usually results in complete loss. Here fire bursts through roof and steeple of 75-year-old Community Baptist Church. Whitefield. N. H. Note apparent absence of fire fighting operations.

The average church is a high onestory building: the smaller ones are of frame construction: others usually have brick or other form of masonry enclosing walls, and usually a slate roof on wooden sheathing supported on timber russes. There is generally a steeple, an organ loft and altar. The floor above the cellar is wood, and wood is generally used in pews and benches, the interior trim and wainscoating. A wooden balcony is not uncommon, and often a wooden choir loft. To make the interior attractive, the walls, recesses and pipe channels are sometimes furred out to make a smooth interior, leaving in some places, concealed spaces of over a foot in depth. Elaborate decorating is sometimes undertaken.

Large concealed areas are found in attic or roof spaces and in the organ loft. The attic space is most important because of its inaccessibility for locating and controlling the fire that may be spreading through it.

Church construction, in brief, favors the fast spread of fire, once it gets a start. A typical church fire, starting in the basement, spreads through the concealed spaces, possibly via the heating pipe openings into the main auditorium as well as to the rooms in the rear of the pipe organ, and even to the organ gallery itself. It rises to the blind attic or hanging ceiling through partitions or hidden spaces, where it spreads in all directions, building up heat and gases and charging the structure with heavy smoke. Back drafts are not uncommon, as the large w’indows are broken. Strong air currents develop to intensify the fire.

As a rule, fire involving the blind attic attacks the roof trusses and beams and after a short time the roof falls, carrying the ceiling and fixtures with it. In some cases the supporting trusses, upon collapsing, force some of the masonry work outward to bring down walls and endanger fire fighers. Once the fire has progressed into the steeple it is almost impossible to save that structural detail.

The average church roof has large, unbroken areas and is sharply peaked. Of late years slate and composition materials have replaced the old flammable wood shingles, reducing the exposure hazard, but adding to the firemen’s troubles. Falling slate is dangerous.

It is not uncommon to attach the parish house, or hall, and the rectory to the church proper, with connecting passageways and openings. In such cases, fire if not soon checked, will communicate to the connecting structures.

The church heating plant is usually located in the cellar or basement and as a rule is not cut off with fire-resistant construction, either horizontally or vertically, from the rest of the church. In the past, the common type of heating was by means of gravity type hot air systems. More modern structures have steam, utilizing oil burners or coal stokers. Chimney flues continue to give trouble however largely due to improper maintenance.

The organ loft is one of the most vulnerable features in the church structure. Almost wholly of wood, with many concealed spaces and vertical vents, fire, once under headway therein, is very difficult to control.

Operational Problems

Church design and construction; flammable material; large unstopped interior open areas and concealed spaces, together with late discovery and delayed alarm, call strikes on the fire department before it can get into operation.

With the blind attic or hanging ceiling fully involved, it is extremely hazardous for the men to operate within the auditorium of the church due to the possibility of the roof, ceiling and fixtures falling. In view of these conditions it is common practice, and necessary, to operate entirely from the outside of the building, once fire has hold on the structure. This naturally slows up work and results in marked ineffectiveness in controlling the fire. However, it is a question of safety to men rather than hazarding their lives in an endeavor to save property.

Where the fire is limited to the basement or organ loft on arrival of the department, fast work in locating and covering lanes of possible fire travel may prevent extension.

When a church of any size is heavily involved with fire, large streams are absolutely necessary. The high ceiling, large open areas of the auditorium and intense heat present, call for use of streams of great range and volume. It is the belief of some students of this type of fire that while even such large streams cannot penetrate the blind attic or other concealed spaces, they can kill the fire in the main auditorium of the church and leave the work of controlling the attic fire to outside lines operated from aerial ladders or adjoining structures. This latter factor, however, depends somewhat upon the type and construction of the roof and ability of firemen to open it effectively and safely. It has been found that modern metal aerial ladders are much more useful in these operations than the old type wooden aerial ladders.

Fire control operations may be complicated by the desire to prevent needless damage to costly stained glass windows, interior decorations, and religious furnishings. In some cases, windows can be swung open to permit venting the structure and the application of hose streams in the effort to cut off and confine the fire to one section of the structure. In others, turret streams may be directed into the church through front or rear windows. Where heavy streams are available, they may be operated from doorways or archways Where men are afforded some protection from falling debris. They cannot hold these positions, though, if ventilation is not effected.

Manifestly, church fires call for ample manpower, rapid mobilization of fire forces and advancement of hose lines. In the case of volunteer forces, particularly where long stretches and pos sibly relaying operations may be involved, prompt summoning of aid is imperative.

The records indicate also the wisdom of painstaking overhauling after church fires. Not a few such fires which were believed extinguished, rekindled with consequent complete destruction of structures.


CONSTRUCTION—Church construction should conform more closely to approved building codes, with particular emphasis on fire stopping; adherence to approved heating and lighting specificstion, and installations and protection against lightning.

Neither cost nor beauty should be considered for some of the structural features such as roof supports, flooring, flues and roof. Boilers should be housed in enclosed room having at least one hour fire resistive partitions, with the ceiling above similarly protected and with standard fire door at the opening to the remainder of the cellar or basement. There should be automatic means of controlling temperature in the duct systems, breaching, etc., and also to guard against low water in the boiler. It oil fuel is burned, burner should be of approved type and means provided for automatically shutting off the supply of oil in case of flame extinguishment at the burner or abnormal supply of oil at that point.

Chimney should be built according to a suitable building code requirement, preferably with tile lined flues.

Wiring, likewise, should be in strict accordance with an approved code. Alterations and additions, whether temporary or permanent, should follow approved practices, with special attention to the misuse of flexible cord for line wire, and overfusing.

Vertical openings leading from basement to auditorium, or above, should be fire-stopped.

Use of combustibles in roofing and in steeple should be discouraged.

Doors between church and rectory or parish ball should be of approved fire resistant construction, self closing.

Preferably an approved motion picture projection booth should be installed

(Continued on page 458)

History Goes Up in Smoke Fire, starting in building at rear of the 160-yearold Presbyterian Church. Elizabeth, N. J.. quickly communicated to famous edifice which was built in 1786 to replace church burned by the British in 1780. Loss—practically total.

Church Fires

(Continued from page 443)

in parish house or wherever pictures are shown. If stage is included in church property, scenery, curtains and other equipment should meet modern fire safety regulations. Use of individual, collapsible, folding seats in auditoriums should be discouraged.

In many cities, churches and religious meeting places are not required to install regulation exit signs and lights. The majority opinion holds that such markers are as essential in such occupancies as in theatres and night clubs.

MISCELLANEOUS Safeguards—In churches where candles and vigil lights are necessary adjuncts to the form of worship, they should be used with care, supervised as continually as possible, and kept away from combustible material. The practice of candle lighting of auditoriums or other sections of the church on special occasions (particularly w’hen holiday or other flammable decorations are used coincidentally), should be discouraged.

Approved containers should be provided for oily cleaning rags, rubbish, ashes, etc.

Smoking in meeting rooms, or in any part of the church or connecting meeting rooms, should be forbidden.

The organ, heating and wiring systems, and flues should be inspected at ; least yearly.

Basement storage of rummage goods, waste paper or other combustibles should be discouraged, and where done, should be confined to areas enclosed in fire resistive materials.

FIRE PROTECTION — Special hazards in basement or other areas should be protected by automatic sprinklers, and/cr fire detection and alarm systems.

First aid fire extinguishers should be strategically located throughout church, rectory and parish house. These should be inspected in accordance with prescribed standards. Church employes, ushers and all persons connected with the church, should be trained in firstaid fire fighting, meeting possible panic and in assisting the fire department. Periodic fire drills should be held, preferably with representatives of the local fire department, directing.

FOR FIRE DEPARTMENT CONSIDERATIONCompany officers, at least, should know the hazards of every church, interior and exterior, in their districts.

Inspections should be made periodically (emphasis on heating and electrical systems, fire fighting equipment, etc.) The cooperation of church officials and employes in facilitating inspections and correcting hazards is desirable.

Department should instruct and train all church personnel (permanent and temporary’) in fire prevention and control procedures. If church is protected by a volunteer department, instructions for calling the department should be promulgated.

Additional fire fighting help should be summoned promptly and in sufficient strength. Incidentally, fire officers should know W’here special additional equipment, such as extra long roof-ladders, plaster and ceiling hooks, metal aerials, turret and deck pipes, portable lighting equipment, masks, etc., that might be needed can most advantageously be secured.

Firemen should be alert for signs of incendiarism.

There are usually members of the fire department in the congregation of every local community church. They should be encouraged to take a special interest in planning and effectuating fire preventive and protective measures connected with their respective churches.

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