Lessons from a Loss: 2016 Church Fires

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Through September of this year, we have had an unusually large number of significant fire losses this year. Some were preventable and some were not. Here are the causes of loss that led to the fires:

  • The furnace room was being used as storage and some of the items were placed too close to the furnace and ignited.
  • A lightning strike.
  • An incendiary fire determined by presence of an accelerant used to start the fire on the outside of the sanctuary which burned through the exterior wall to the building interior and to the roof.
  • The owner of the house next to our manse was doing work on his roof with a torch and set his house on fire. The fire then spread to our manse and church and three other neighboring homes

Consider how these fires may have been prevented. The furnace or boiler room should be kept clear of all objects not related to the operation and maintenance of equipment found in the furnace or boiler room. Material storage in the boiler room may be in violation of local building and fire codes. Also, maintaining an open and uncluttered space in and around equipment in the furnace or boiler room is critical when maintenance and repairs of equipment located in this space is necessary.

Lightning rods can be installed to protect the structure in the event of a lightning strike. If lightning hits the structure, it will preferentially strike the rod and be conducted to the ground through the wire, instead of passing through the structure, where it could start a fire. This is particularly important for churches in high risk areas or if the church has a large steeple/bell tower.

As a side note, lightning strikes are fairly common for churches in comparison to other structures. So far in 2016, 12 of our churches have been struck by lightning. Although a few of the losses were not very significant, most of them were. These could have been easily prevented with a lightning rod. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has a standard specifically on the design of lightning protection systems.

There is not much you can do to avoid an arson fire, or the negligence of another party, except increase security, maintain and use exterior lighting, and trim vegetation to allow good visibility. Also, avoid storing combustibles outside near the church. In addition, the installation of a sprinkler system could minimize the extent of damage should there be a fire.

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