WHY THE NOTRE-DAME CATHEDRAL FIRE WAS SO DIFFICULT TO TACKLE
For almost a millennium, Notre-Dame Cathedral has stood proudly on Paris’ central Île de la Cité, a symbol of the city’s history, culture, and romanticism. On Monday, April 15th, 2019, thousands who lined the banks of the Seine and millions more across the world watched on in a mixture of disbelief, heartbreak, and helplessness as the Gothic masterpiece burned before their eyes.
The fire has fortunately not claimed any lives but has robbed the landmark of its 19th-century spire, roof, and potentially priceless stained glass windows and interior ornamentation and artwork. At the time of writing, it appears that the main structure of Notre-Dame Cathedral has been saved and preserved, owed to the efforts of 500 firefighters deployed to the disaster.
As many watched the operation in real time, former St. Louis Fire Commander and CNN contributor Gregg Favre took to the internet to offer a professional explanation of the challenges facing the fire crews in Paris, and the many aspects for dealing with a structural blaze of this magnitude. His expert angle makes for informative reading to architects and the public alike, detailing aspects from design to accountability to the science of how fire burns through buildings.
The first issue identified by Favre is in the timber construction of old churches. Cathedrals like Notre-Dame are characterized by a heavy timber construction with large, open spaces and very few fire stops to seal openings in the building. With no passive fire protection system in place, the fire is liable to tear uninterrupted through the building, with the timber structure as its fuel. In cases where the fire starts high on the structure, the Fire Department can save walls and impinged areas. However, with the Notre-Dame fire, the peak and inaccessibility of the roof led to its surrender, with 66% of the roof lost.