Fire, like rain, falls upon "the just and on the unjust" in accordance with natural laws, and churches are daily paying the inevitable penalty for improper construction, inadequate maintenance, and indifference to fire protection and hazards. Church fires occur on an average of three each day in this country.
Owing to the character of church-building occupancy, few of the common hazards of the home, store, or factory are involved in church fires. We might at first consideration decide that the opportunities for starting a fire are quite limited, but there are other factors which change the picture, namely, inferior construction, defective heating and lighting installations, lack of lightning protection, together with poor supervision and maintenance.
The country is dotted with small churches, often erected by the donated labor of the members, who frequently have had but little experience in building construction, electric wiring, or the installation of heating equipment. Sometimes funds are low and equipment which may become a fire hazard is not repaired or replaced, thereby presenting a serious danger. Good maintenance, especially in connection with heating equipment and electrical wiring, is of vital importance. Sometimes churches are located in areas with little or no fire protection, and when a fire does occur, a total loss is usually involved.
It is easy to understand why overheated or defective furnaces and stoves account for. almost thirty-five per cent of the church fires of the nation. Defective wiring is the second cause of most church fires.
It is not surprising that fires are frequently due to misuse of heating plants, when we determine the conditions under which they are used. Most churches are not heated except during services, and then the fires are forced for the one or two, days when the building is actually used. This is done because of the fact that the plant is too small and also on account of the time element. The following are a few typical examples involving church fires:
"The janitor discovered the fire in the woodwork over a hot-air furnace while the Ladies' Aid was holding a meeting. There was only an eight-inch clearance between the furnace and the wooden joists above. After attempting unsuccessfully to control the fire the janitor gave an- alarm. The church was destroyed with a loss of $56,000."
"The janitor started a fire in a hot-air furnace and went home to lunch, evidently leaving the damper open. Combustible partitions near the furnace ignited. The fire was finally noticed by a passer-by who sounded an alarm. The building was destroyed with a loss of $55,000."
Fortunately, up to now there has been no great loss of life in the churches of the United States through fires, though the monetary losses have been high, with hundreds of churches being totally destroyed. There are on record a number of disasters, however, in other countries. In Santiago, Chile, for example, two thousand people lost their lives in one church fire.
Causes, and How to Overcome
In 151anning to control the fire menace in churches, it is desirable to know not only what the most frequent causes of church fires are but where such fires are most likely to occur. A defective chimney may cause fire in the basement, or it may be in the wall spaces or in the attic near the roof. Lightning fires may occur in the steeple or burn out wiring in the attic.
The attached diagram has been prepared by the National Fire Protection Association to show the most important locations where fires start. Attic space is an extremely important point because of its inaccessibility for fire fighting, and because fires starting at lower points quite frequently extend upward into the attic area. Fire extinguishers should be provided in every church and should be thoroughly tested at frequent intervals. By referring to the accompanying sketch it can be readily seen that fire-stopping partitions should be provided. Unfortunately, failure to negotiate such a fire-limiting feature seems to be the rule, instead of the exception. Veteran fire fighters agree that once a fire extends beyond the reach of the accessible location, it is very difficult to uncover and control the blaze.
Though doubtless the first cause for church fires revolves around heating plants, together with chimneys and flues, electrical causes rate second. As to the first, clearances are frequently improper, and equipment leading to chimney has deteriorated, while in the latter the wiring has become obsolete, and then there is overloading because Of increased demands for electricity. All heating plants and electric wiring should be installed in accordance with accepted code standards of safety and then be properly maintained.
Ten Recommendations for Fire Prevention
Fires in American churches reach astonishing numbers and cause startling damage. Records kept by the National Fire Protection Association covering the decade between 1926 and 1936 showed
1,000 church fires annually, more than three a day. The financial loss each year has exceeded $5,000,000. Significantly enough, companies regard church buildings as among their poorest risks. Underwriters suggest the following policy to prevent this alarming waste:
1. Install heating equipment properly, and provide adequate protection for near-by inflammable materials, including woodwork.
2. Keep chimneys and flues clean and in good repair.
3. Replace worn and obsolete electric wiring. Maintain proper fuses.
4. Provide lightning rods in areas subject to lightning hazards, when deemed advisable by the Underwriters' Inspection Bureau located in your respective section of the country.
5. Organ motors and wiring should be installed only by competent persons and annually inspected.
6. Keep the property locked while unoccupied, and eliminate rubbish and litter.
7. Candles and open lights should be used with the greatest caution.
8. Wooden-shingle roofs should never be allowed on churches.
9. Provide and maintain an adequate number of fire extinguishers.
10. Have a fire-prevention inspection made of the church.—Adapted from Walther League Messenger, February, 1944.