Rapid Response: Notre Dame fire poses unique challenges for Paris Fire Brigade

Firefighters face multiple hazards at cultural icon as it continues to burn


What happened: The historic Notre Dame Cathedral in central Paris is burning. Flames shot through the roof, 50 feet or more into the air. Large portions of the roof and spires have crumbled into the building as the landmark seems destined for a sensationally tragic collapse.

Firefighters have evacuated area buildings, with what is being termed a “major response.” The Cathedral has been under renovation, with portions of the structure under scaffolding. Bronze statues had been removed last week in anticipation of the renovations.

While nothing has been definitively confirmed, France 2 television reported that the police are treating the fire as “accidental,” with the renovation-related construction believed to have contributed to the fire. The Paris prosecutor’s office believes the fire to be accidental and has already initiated an inquiry into the incident

Debris are seen inside Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, Tuesday, April 16, 2019. Firefighters declared success Tuesday in a more than 12-hour battle to extinguish an inferno engulfing Paris' iconic Notre Dame cathedral that claimed its spire and roof, but spared its bell towers and the purported Crown of Christ. (Christophe Petit Tesson, Pool via AP)
Debris are seen inside Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, Tuesday, April 16, 2019. Firefighters declared success Tuesday in a more than 12-hour battle to extinguish an inferno engulfing Paris' iconic Notre Dame cathedral that claimed its spire and roof, but spared its bell towers and the purported Crown of Christ. (Christophe Petit Tesson, Pool via AP)

As fire engines are rushing from all over Paris to the scene, roadways are filling with grief-stricken residents, many in apparent shock and disbelief. A security perimeter has been established while the Paris Fire Brigade attempts to control the inferno.

Why it’s significant: Sitting on an island in the middle of the Seine River, Notre Dame is one of the world’s most significant symbols of Catholicism. Portions of the original structure date to the 12th century, with extensive renovations and additions in the 19th century. At over 850 years old, the Gothic construction will prove highly problematic for firefighters to contain and extinguish. Thick walls, heavy timber and iron, coupled with the original and mixed years additions, will prove difficult for both the firefight and the likely attempts at rehabilitation later.

The Cathedral is historically significant for many reasons, including having played a role in Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” holding a significant art cache, and being one of the world’s most famous tourist attractions.

Based on what we are witnessing on television, fire loss appears to be rising into tens of millions of Euros.

The French president has canceled a national address for the evening, heading instead to the scene.

Top takeaways on the Notre Dame Cathedral fire

Here are my top takeaways from this event.

  1. Access and reach in tight quarters makes for extremely difficult elevated stream access.
  2. Collapsed and collapsing heavy timber, iron spires and wide expanses will compound overhaul and extinguishment efforts, likely for days.
  3. Large open construction spaces and Gothic spires and steeples are firefighter and collapse traps, likely preventing any close and/or interior attempts to fight such a fire.
  4. Quick area evacuation is critical to reducing risk for people in collapse or areas where fire spread may be likely.

What’s next: Firefighters will continue to attempt to control the spread by getting water on the fire. With the large portions of collapsed structural members, mixed contents, and access issues, foam may be the only way to extinguish the fire in a timely manner.

Worldwide attention is focusing on the firefight and the collapse, and will soon focus on the opportunity for salvage and restoration. While the government inquiry will look at the cause and subsequent fire spread, the fire service should conduct an early review of both the fire problem and the firefight. Valuable takeaways will likely come from that evaluation and review.

Learn more

Temples, churches, synagogues and mosques, due to their construction, occupancy and symbolism, can be a target for violence and present a unique challenge for responders. Learn more about past fires in houses of worship and what we’ve learned with these resources from FireRescue1.

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