Keeping Church Fires from Starting
October is National Fire Prevention Month
Based on the training course Arson Prevention and Fire Drills for Churches 
LOOK. LISTEN. LEARN.
Fire can happen anywhere.™
~ National Fire Protection Association 
In the Bible
These three Bible passages refer to controllable fire risks:
[Construction] Now if anyone builds ... with ... wood, hay, straw, it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done (1 Corinthians 3:12-13).
[Carelessness] Can a man carry fire next to his chest and his clothes not be burned? (Proverbs 6:27).
[Recklessness] Like a madman who throws firebrands (Proverbs 26:18).
Churches on Fire
February 15, 1999, Lake Worth, Texas - A fire found to be "incendiary in nature" ignited a storage structure next to an occupied church. It spread to and through the church building's attic. Five firefighters from several departments were inside and four were on the roof when part of the roof collapsed. Three of those inside died. 
April 28, 1994, St. Louis, Missouri - An attic fire at a large gothic church was probably started by lightning. The lightning arrestor system had been installed when the building was erected, long before the NFPA 780, Lightning Protection Code, 1992 Edition. 
December 2, 2014, Felton, Delaware - Three churches were burglarized by two intoxicated individuals, who set fires to cover their tracks. One church burned to the ground. All three fires were lit by igniting available combustible materials with a lighter. 
We have to admit that we cannot prevent all fires. However, most fires are preventable. That includes church fires. That is part of the responsibility of a Church Safety Ministry - preventing fire.
Let's begin with a review of how a fire burns. A fire needs three things to burn: Oxygen, Heat, and Fuel. A fire cannot start if any one of these is missing. On the other hand, fires can be starved and put out by removing one of these. The best way to prevent fires is to keep these from all being together.
Causes of fire fall into two primary categories: physical and dynamic. Physical causes are material conditions with the three necessary ingredients for a fire - oxygen, fuel, and heat. Dynamic causes are forces that move the ingredients into place.
Some of the more common kinds of physical fire causes are
- Common combustibles (such as paper, cloth, plastics, flammable liquids) too close to heat sources
- Malfunctioning electrical equipment
- Overloaded electrical circuits
- Outdated and worn wiring
- Electric cords under rugs and mats
- Worn switches and outlets
- Faulty circuit breakers
- Malfunctioning gas and oil furnaces
- Leaking gas lines
- Malfunctioning gas appliances
There are two kinds of dynamic causes to consider here, natural and human. There is a third, described in the Bible, Divine - such as when Jehovah God lit the fire on Elijah's altar - but that's not common.
The best known natural cause is lightning. It starts wildfires, such as the ones in the Columbia River Gorge this year. It also starts house fires and church fires, such as happened in St. Louis in 1994. Then there are windstorms that knock trees into power lines, or (as in California) down a power line into dry vegetation. Earthquakes can cause fires by breaking gas lines, knocking over candles and spilling out stove fires (as happened in the 1906 San Francisco quake), and by downing electric lines.
Another natural cause, volcanic activity, made news in 2018, as lava burned down entire neighborhoods in Hawaii. However, there's nothing we can do about that except get out of the way and don't build our church in an eruption-prone area.
The dynamic causes we are most concerned with are human causes. There are a number of types of human causes of fires: accidental, negligent, reckless, and intentional. For example, someone accidentally knocks over a lit candle. Another person negligently leaves a burner on with oil in a skillet. A bored youth recklessly tosses lit matches into the landscaping. Or a vandal intentionally piles trash against the wall of the church and lights it.
In two of the above accounts of church fires, the fires were set. In Lake Worth, it was in an outbuilding next to the church . There was activity inside the church, and apparently the shed was unlocked or left open, allowing access for the arsonist. In Felton, the perpetrators had broken into the churches and set the fires as a cover-up. In other places, vandals gathered burnable materials outside and piled them against the walls of the churches. Flammable liquids have been also used. Some arsonists brought their own. Some found them at the church.
Negligence is also a frequent factor in church fires: candles not fully extinguished, ranges left on, heaters placed too close to furniture or curtains, etc. In some cases, this was ignorance of fire safety.
Knowing what causes fire, we prevent fires by preventing, removing, or countering the causes. As a first step in this process, the Church Safety Committee and Safety Director conduct a fire risk assessment of the church . This should cover the entire church, top to bottom, inside and out.
Check local and state fire codes. Is your church exempt from either? Is your church in line with the codes? Even if it is exempt, it is a good idea to follow them as much as is feasible.
A checklist is a valuable tool in this assessment, since it lists items which may be overlooked, and it keeps a record of the findings. Your church's insurance company may provide you with a fire safety checklist.
Since arson is the leading cause of church fires, preventing arson is a top priority in church fire prevention. This entails grounds maintenance, building maintenance, outside housekeeping, and inside housekeeping. The objectives are (1) remove materials an arsonist can use to set fires outside, and (2) prevent or hinder unauthorized entrance, since most arson fires are set inside the building.
- Cut back trees that give access to second floor windows.
- Remove shrubbery which hides windows and other point of entry from observation.
- Remove shrubbery too close to the building if it can be easily ignited.
- Install motion detector lights. If neighbors notice them coming on when there are no church activities, they may call the police .
- Harden all points of entry (including windows) against forced entry
- Have locks on all inside doors so they can be secured when not in use.
- Have some form of surveillance or sensors to detect intruders
- If adding an outbuilding, place it far enough from the church building to keep a fire set in it from spreading to the church
- Clean up all loose trash and natural debris
- Keep dumpsters far enough away so a dumpster fire won't affect the church building
- Secure all moveable trash cans - lock them up away from the building
- Secure all flammable liquids (paints, solvents, gasoline, etc.) out of sight or remove from the grounds
- Keep all loose combustibles picked up and put away in locked cabinets or thrown away
- Do not store gasoline and gasoline powered equipment inside the church building
- Lock up all other flammable liquids
Preventing Electrical Fires
Many church fires are caused by electrical wiring or devices. Older buildings may have faulty or outdated wiring. The wiring may not be able to carry the load of current lighting, appliances, and equipment (such as air conditioning). Normal use can wear out switches, outlets, and light fixtures.
Make sure the wiring is up-to-date
- Be sure circuits are not being overloaded
- Remove electric cords from under carpets and mats
- Check all appliances for condition, connection, and grounding
- Check all outlets, switches, and light fixtures
- If a switch or outlet is arcing, replace
- All switches and outlets should have cover plates
- Check all electric cords for current capacity and condition
- They should have enough capacity for the devices using them
- Replace if worn or damaged
- Check the circuit breaker panel or fuse box
Heating & Cooling Systems
Heating and cooling systems cause some church fires. Fan motors and pumps in air conditioning units can overheat. Furnaces should be inspected and cleaned every year, especially before Fall. Also check oil or gas lines for leaks.
Many church fires start in the kitchen, since they have heat-generating appliances.
- Electric and gas ranges should be in good working order.
- Ovens should be calibrated.
- All electric and gas connections should be in good shape:
- No arcing, no leaks.
- Microwave ovens need enough room for venting.
A wildfire or a fire in neighboring structures may threaten the church, such has happened in Tennessee and California. How do we make a church able to survive a wildfire or neighborhood fire?
Making church buildings survivable is more than what a Safety/Security Ministry can do on its own. This requires coordination with the congregation's governing board(s). According to the California Chapparal Institute , protecting a home (or other structure) from a wildfire begins at the building itself, then work your way out. The three most important reasons buildings burn are flying embers, radiant heat, and direct contact. Other wildfire preparation advice is offered by FireWise of the National Fire Prevention Association .
Train church staff, safety team, and congregation to detect and identify fire hazards. Teach them how to remove them and/or report them. Train all in fire-safe practices in preparing food and handling combustible materials.
Insurance companies have information on preventing church fires. There is more in the Sheepdog Church Security training course, "Arson Prevention and Fire Drills for Churches" .
Stop a fire before it starts
- Sheepdog Church Security, OnlineTraining, "Arson Prevention and Fire Drills for Churches" [https://sheepdog-church-security.thinkific.com/courses/arson-prevention-and-fire-drills-for-churches].
- Sheepdog Church Security, TrainingBundles, "Arson Prevention and Fire Drills for Churches v3" [https://www.sheepdogchurchsecurity.com/shop/bundles/fire_safety.html].
- "Fire Prevention Week," National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), 2018 (accessed 9/21/2018) [https://www.nfpa.org/Public-Education/Campaigns/Fire-Prevention-Week].
- "Fire Investigation Summary, Church Fire Lake Worth, Texas February 15, 1999," Fire Investigations Department, National Fire Protection Association, © 2001 (accessed 9/21/2018) [https://www.nfpa.org/-/media/Files/News-and-Research/Resources/Fire-Investigations/fi1099.ashx?la=en].
- Isner, M.S. (Fire Protection Engineer, National Fire Protection Assocation), "Summary, Fire Investigation Report, Church Fire, St. Louis, Missouri, April 28, 1994," National Fire Protection Assocation (NFPA), 1994 or 1995 (accessed 9/22/2018) [https://www.nfpa.org/-/media/Files/News-and-Research/Resources/Fire-Investigations/fistlouis.ashx?la=en].
- "Arson prevention at houses of worship," U.S. Fire Administration, Federal Emergency Management Agency (accessed 9/22/2018) [https://www.usfa.fema.gov/prevention/outreach/arson_prevention_houses_of_worship/].
- "Fire Risk," Sheepdog Church Security, Articles, September 24, 2018 [https://sheepdogchurchsecurity.net/articles/fire-risk/].
- Wikipedia, "Lake Worth Church fire" - "Origin and cause" (accessed 9/22/2018) [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Worth_Church_fire#Origin_and_cause].
- "Protecting Your Home from Fire," California Chaparral Institute, [http://www.californiachaparral.org/bprotectingyourhome.html].
- "Preparing homes for wildfire," National Fire Protection Assocation (NFPA) [http://www.firewise.org/wildfire-preparedness/be-firewise/home-and-landscape/defensible-space.aspx?sso=0].