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How do you fight a fire in an old cathedral? Pray for a miracle

Whether said in jest or despair, as flames ate away more than 800 years of history that is the iconic Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, there came a lament: How do you fight a fire in an old church? Pray for a miracle.

And as the fire grew and the damage spread, amid fear that maybe not much could be saved — given the unique challenge of attacking a blaze of such ferocity, in such conditions, in a building so tall, so old and so unforgiving — that prospect took on new meaning.

“These cathedrals and houses of worship are built to burn,” Vincent Dunn, a fire consultant and former New York City fire chief, told The New York Times as he detailed how hard it is to control a fire in such a building.

“If they weren’t houses of worship, they’d be condemned.”

Even U.S. President Donald Trump became an armchair fire chief, suggesting how to tackle it.

“So horrible to watch the massive fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris,” Trump tweeted. “Perhaps flying water tankers could be used to put it out. Must act quickly!”

While water bombing was not part of the plan — apparently for fear the weight and power of the falling water would lead to further damage — there was a massive effort underway.

About 400 firefighters were mobilized to tackle the blaze, according to France’s interior minister. Additional resources from surrounding cities and towns poured in to help.

Helicopters were overhead assessing and relaying fire and structural information, while boats pumped water from the River Seine to feed the myriad of fire hoses directed upwards.

The interior of the cathedral is approximately 130 by 48 metres, with a 35-metre-high roof. Two massive early Gothic towers crown the western facade, which is divided into three storeys and has its doors adorned with early Gothic carvings and Old Testament kings.

When the spire, the cathedral’s highest point at 90 metres, collapsed, lighting the French sky in deep orange, authorities expressed hope that the two bell towers — which rung out to mark all manner of fantastic and horrible events over centuries of life in Paris — could be saved.

It was the very age of the place as well as the design that made it so vulnerable. Construction on it started in 1160 A.D.

Gregg Favre, a former St. Louis firefighter, engrossed Twitter readers throughout the day with insights on the challenges that his Parisian colleagues faced.

“Churches have no shortage of things to burn,” Favre said in a Twitter thread that gained huge traction.

“The first issue is how old churches are built — heavy timber construction with large open spaces and very few (if any in a church like #NotreDame) fire stops.”

Modern construction calls for sprinkler systems and firestops — passive fire-protection systems used to seal openings in buildings. Nothing of the like were in the construction plans of the cathedral.

“The peak, the lack of access and fire spread means almost certain loss,” Favre said of the roof, which was mostly covered by scaffolding at the time as it underwent a large-scale renovation.

“Even if aerial waterways (think hook and ladders with pre-piped hoses) could reach the roofline, it is difficult to see how they would get an angle that would get water on the fire — it’s just too high. So this means you have to put firefighters inside.”

Hand-held hoses inside a structure fire of that size are difficult to manoeuvre and largely ineffective, Favre said. Any firefighters inside would also be in danger as the roof collapsed around them.

Almost everything was against the firefighters, he noted.

A fire requires oxygen, fuel, heat and a chemical chain reaction. Cutting off any one element will extinguish the flames. But this fire offered no obvious way to interrupt any of them, he said.

There was plenty of fuel, from the cathedral’s wood structures to its paper and fabric contents. The heat from a roaring blaze of that size is tremendous, offering little hope of interrupting it, and the chance of stopping the chemical chain reaction ended five minutes after it started, Favre said.

“That leaves the oxygen. Unfortunately, even if the roof had not burnt off, churches are nearly impossible to control ventilation in. Their design is to be open and airy.

“Great for Sunday worship, terrible for managing fire spread.”

The only thing Favre could think of in favour of curtailing the damage was the firefighters themselves.

The Brigade des sapeurs-pompiers de Paris, he said, “are world-class firefighters … as strong, dedicated and skilled responders as you’d find anywhere in the world.”

With files from Bloomberg News and The Associated Press

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