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Not Too Hot

Preventing Fires and Arson

Fire Extinguisher Extinguishing Safety Equipment Human Hand Security Safety Pulling
An article in a series based on the training module “Arson and Fire Safety v4” in the Safety Member Certification program[1]

From the Bible

And the men of Ephraim … said unto Jephthah, “Wherefore passedst thou over to fight against the children of Ammon, and didst not call us to go with thee? We will burn thine house upon thee with fire” (Judges 12:1).

Can a man take fire in his bosom, and his clothes not be burned? (Proverbs 6:27)

Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death (Proverbs 26:18).

For lack of wood the fire goes out (Proverbs 26:20).


The saying, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," is credited to Benjamin Franklin. In a 1735 visit to Boston, he had seen how the fire department not only fought fires, but worked on preventing them. Back home in Philadelphia, he published a letter to the public urging them to take measures to prevent fires. The small cost of these measures would save the much greater costs of property damage and loss of life.[2][3]

In the News

Obviously, a church fire that does not start would rarely make the news. One possible exception would be a lightning strike on the church building which did some damage but did not start a fire. Another exception would be a failed arson attempt. However, the causes of fires are mentioned in news stories, and knowing these causes can inform our fire prevention efforts.

Portland, Oregon, undated -The City of Portland has a "Fire Prevention & Safety Information" page on their website where Portland Fire & Rescue provides information on preventing fires. Under the heading "Home and Business Fire Safety" is advice for various kinds of facilities. Although this does not include places of worship, some pages have pointers which can be used in churches. Among these is "Home Fire Safety Self Inspection Checklist." Another page, "Workplace Fire Safety," says, "Discuss hazards particular to your facility. What can you identify and what precautions can be taken?"[4]
Note: There are also other government agencies advising how to prevent fires.

Dothan, Alabama, September 1, 1996 - In Firehouse Magazine, Dennis Rubin, the Fire Chief of Dothan, Alabama, advised rural churches on preventing arson. Noting that arson cases are evenly divided between Black and White churches, he concluded that the rural locations make them softer targets. His advice was to make them harder targets, First, make it harder to start fires. Then make it harder to break in. Finally, increase detection with lighting, cameras, motion sensors, and alarms. This last point includes community watch and security patrols.[5]
Note: Most church arson fires are started inside the building.

San Francisco, California, September 17, 2021 - Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), the dominant utility in Northern California, informed the U.S. District Judge supervising its criminal probation that it has made changes in its power cut-off procedure to prevent starting wildfires. This means shutting down a power line if it shows a problem or outage (indication of a ground fault, etc.) instead of after investigating the problem.

The recent Dixie Fire was caused by a tree falling against PG&E high tension lines. In that case it took a responding line troubleshooter 10 hours to reach the site and identify the problem before shutting off the power. By then the fire had started.[6]
Note: Electrical shorts and overheated wires are responsible for many church fires.

Austin, Texas, 2021 - Fire Prevention Services of the University of Texas at Austin has published online accounts of nine historic fires, from the Iroquois Theatre Fire (1903) to the Liverpool Arena Car Park Fire (2017). Among the causes were a match lit near flammables, a fire lit in a waste can, hot lights, a gas leak, an automobile fire, indoor pyrotechnics (fireworks), and an electrical problem.[7]
Note: In some large churches, pyrotechnics in special effects would be a potential fire hazard.

Manhattan, New York City, New York, May 1, 2016 - Candles put into a cardboard box started a fire that destroyed much of an Orthodox cathedral in Manhattan. The candles had been used in the Orthodox Easter service. The caretaker thought they had all been put out, but some were still smoldering and reignited.[8]
Note: many church and home fires are started by candles. Used candles should be stored in non-combustible containers.

Featured Resources

January's featured resources are the "Arson and Fire Safety v4" training module in the Safety Member Certification program, and the free download, Arson Prevention: 3 Steps to Success.

Safety Member Certification

"Arson and Fire Safety v4" is the sixth of seven training modules (courses) in the Safety Member Certification program. It covers several aspects of fire safety and arson prevention: fire evacuation, prevention, and suppression. Subjects include Fire Science, removing fire hazards, the placement, inspection and use of fire extinguishers, how to plan evacuations, conducting fire drills, etc. Access control and grounds-keeping are presented as arson prevention methods.

It is important for each Safety Team member to be completely trained and certified. When a Safety Team member takes all of the modules, passing the certification test for each, he or she will be receive a two-year Safety Member Certification. There are two modes of instruction: Classroom (group) and Online (individual). There are also live online classes via Zoom.

Classroom: Training materials are available for classroom training for the whole team. This is perfect for training all the recruits when starting a Church Safety Ministry. It can be used for refreshers and updated training.

Online: Individuals can train online. A new member to an established Church Safety Team shouldn't have to wait several months for a training class. This member can start immediately, taking each module and its certification test online.

Zoom: The next semester of live online classes begins on February 6, 2022. There is a new class every two or three weeks:

Feb. 6 Safety Team Fundamentals
Feb. 20 Active Shooter Response
Mar. 6 Deescalating Disruptive Persons
Mar. 20 Protecting Children from Abuse
Apr. 3 Basic Use of Force Laws
Apr. 25 Arson and Fire Safety
May 15 Storms and Disasters

For online training, each class is available for 30 days from enrollment.[1]

Arson Prevention: 3 Steps to Success

This PDF file begins with a brief overview of the material covered in the training module. The three steps following are from the U.S. Fire Administration, a part of FEMA. They are three areas in which to concentrate fire prevention efforts:

  1. External security: Lighting, landscaping, combustible materials management/minimization.
  2. Internal security: Smoke/fire alarms, sprinkler systems, window and door locks.
  3. Awareness: In the congregation and in the community.

Click *HERE* to get it.[9]

The Science of Fire

Fire has been described as a powerful servant and a fearsome foe. It creates heat by destroying materials. Under control, it can be very useful. Examples are cooking our food, smelting and melting metals to make many things, heating us in cold weather, providing light, welding and soldering, etc. On the other hand, an uncontrolled fire can destroy a home, a business, a vehicle, or many square miles of land including entire towns, and endangers lives. The question is how can we control or prevent a fire?

Fire triangle element vector illustration. Labeled educational heat, oxygen and fuel scheme as three prerequisite ingredients for flame effect.

It takes three things to start a fire and to keep it going:


Without any one of these, a fire cannot start. Take one away, and the fire dies out.


Oxygen is in the air, so it is almost always there. In some places air, and therefore oxygen can be kept out to prevent certain materials from burning. However, this is very rarely the case in a church. A small fire in a container may be smothered by a tight lid: the fire goes out when the oxygen in the container is used up. Try that with a votive candle in a jar.


Since oxygen is everywhere we are, the easiest way to prevent a fire is to keep fuel and heat separated. Around the church, good housekeeping and grounds-keeping remove combustible trash and debris. Combustible items that belong in the church are put in safe places, away from heat sources. Cleaning up debris outdoors removes the fuel for a fire starting outside.


Another way to prevent a fire is to keep heat sources away from combustible materials. We are familiar with the warnings of "No smoking or open flame" in areas with flammable liquids and gasses. When flammable fumes mix with air (oxygen), all it takes is a very small spark. Other areas of concern are overloaded electric wires in contact with combustibles, paper on heaters, and cardboard or fabrics on a stove.


There are motives for setting fire to churches. There are also ways to reduce the risk of arson.

A Burning Passion

A pyromaniac is someone with a burning passion. Mental illness is one reason for arson. Some persons just have a bent for starting fires. Take, for example, the 2009 Greenwood Arsonist in Seattle. He pleaded guilty to 11 of 68 fires set in the Greenwood District of the city - those were the ones he remembered - and sentenced to 30 years. He had a long record of arson and of drug use, beginning when he was 19 (he was 46 when caught for this string). He heard voices (a likely symptom of schizophrenia), and they stopped when he lit a fire.[10][11]

Other Motives

Mental illness or an inordinate fascination with fire is not the only driving factor in arson. According to his own admission, the Greenwood Arsonist's first set fire was to cover up theft. That is a common motive in church arsons. Thieves, whether embezzlers or burglars, may set fires to destroy incriminating evidence. However, most of the time enough evidence can be found to at least indicate that a theft has occurred, sometimes enough to identify a suspect.

Financial gain through insurance fraud, forced sale, hampering competition, or some other way, is another motive for arson.

Throughout history, political opposition, religious differences, racial/ethnic hatred, or some other form of bias has motivated arson.

Recently, mob violence has been another factor leading to arson. Don't blame this on legitimate peaceful protest. Many times, rioters have been organized by extremists.

Then there is vandalism. Sometimes it has a motive, but vandals often operate out of boredom or rebellion against society.

Reducing the Risk of Arson

A church can reduce the risk of arson, both from fires started outside and those started inside.

Outside: Few would-be arsonists start a fire outside a building using materials they bring with them. Most use combustibles found on site. Here is where smart grounds-keeping comes in:

  1. Keep bushes and trees around the church trimmed so that they do not touch the buildings. Better still, do not have them close enough so that a burning bush would endanger the church. Along this line, use less flammable shrubbery, avoiding cedar, pine, eucalyptus, or other oily plants.
  2. Do not allow trash cans to overflow. Better still, keep outside cans in a locked area or have a dumpster a safe distance from the church.
  3. Keep debris and trash cleaned up on the church campus.
  4. Remove bricks, big rocks, and other items which can be used to break a window to throw a firebomb inside.
  5. Have fire-resistant exterior materials, including on doors.
  6. Lock up all flammables, such as fuel for lawn-care equipment.
  7. Establish and maintain good relations with the neighborhood. They will then be more likely to watch the church when it's unoccupied.

Inside: Since many arson fires are started by burglars or vandals who break in, use anti-burglary access control. Then, for those who do manage to get in, further restrict access to accelerants.

  1. Have doors and windows which strongly resist forced entry.
  2. Be sure all doors and windows are closed and locked when vacating the building.
  3. Install entry detection systems on doors and windows. A loud outside alarm may scare off intruders.
  4. Install surveillance equipment such as cameras and motion sensors. Enable them to be remotely monitored.
  5. Lock furnace room and utility room doors when vacating the building.
  6. Lock all candles, matches, and lighters in secure cabinets or rooms.

Fireproofing the Church

There are steps that can be taken to prevent accidental fires in and around the church. Also check out Portland's Home Fire Safety Self Inspection Checklist.

  1. The first step is good housekeeping.
    1. Combustible trash and materials not put away can unintentionally come into contact with heat sources. Even dust, especially with lint in it, can catch fire when hot. That smell when you restart the heat on a cold Fall day is dust in the heating system burning.
    2. Provide cigarette disposals where people are likely to smoke outside.
    3. Keep outside trash cleaned up.
  2. Maintenance:
    1. Maintain the heating system, inspecting the furnace every year before restarting.
    2. Maintain all equipment with moving parts to prevent friction fires.
    3. Check all switches and outlets regularly. Repair faulty ones.
  3. Don't use combustible mulch next to the building.
  4. Don't put flammable notices, signs, and decorations too close to heat sources. This is of special concern when decorating for holidays and special events.
  5. Keep heat sources away from combustibles. This is especially true for portable heaters, whether electric, kerosene, or gas.
  6. Use candles safely:
    1. Use non-flame lights when tradition allows.
    2. Have burn-proof candle holders and drip catchers.
    3. Never leave a burning candle unattended.
    4. Always supervise their use by children.
    5. Be certain they are properly extinguished and safely stored.
  7. Kitchen:
    1. Keep stoves, ovens, fryers, and other cooking appliances in the kitchen clean and in good repair.
    2. Do not place combustibles on or next to them.
    3. Do not leave them unmonitored when in use.
  8. Make sure the electrical wiring is up-to-date and in good repair. Have any electrical problems fixed immediately.
  9. Extension cords are of particular concern:
    1. Do not use cheap extension cords.
    2. Do not use damaged or worn cords.
    3. Do not overload them. This makes them hot.
    4. Do not put power cords under carpets, mats, and other floor coverings.
    5. Do not put them under heavy or sharp objects.
    6. Do not stretch them around corners.
    7. Use cable guards over cords crossing where people walk, such as an aisle or hallway.
  10. Do not use faulty electrical equipment.
  11. Do not overload circuits or outlets. Overloading an electric line produces heat.
  12. Unplug electric appliances when not in use.
  13. Be alert for gas leaks. Be sure gas appliances are fully turned off when not in use.


Fire prevention is worth the cost and effort when considering the potential cost of a fire.

There Is More

There are two more articles in this series: "Cool It Down" (Suppressing Fires) and "Escape the Flames" (Fire Evacuation). The first article in January was "The 2009 First Baptist Church of Maryville Shooting" (Lesson Learned).


  1. Kris Moloney, "Complete Training System and Safety Member Team Certification," Sheepdog Church Security, © 2020 [].
  2. Staff, "An Ounce of Prevention Is Worth A Pound of Cure," National Inspection Testing and Certification Corporation (NITC), n.d. [].
  3. Anna Matteo (author) and George Grow (editor), "An Ounce of Prevention Is Worth a Pound of Cure," Words And Their Stories, Learning English, Voice of America, March 14, 2020 [].
  4. Staff, "Fire Prevention & Safety Information," Portland Fire & Rescue, City of Portland, no date [].
  5. Dennis L. Rubin, "Preventing Church Fires," Firehouse® Magazine, September 1, 1996 [].
  6. Mark Chediak, "PG&E: Power Shutoff Protocol May Avert Dixie-Like Fires in California," Insurance Journal, September 20, 2021 [].
  7. Staff, "Historic Fires," Fire Prevention Services, The University of Texas at Austin, © 2021 [].
  8. Lucy Yang, "Candles investigated as possible cause of Manhattan church fire," ABC7NY (WABC), May 3, 2016 [].
  9. Kris Moloney, "Arson Prevention: 3 Steps to Success," Sheepdog Church Security, © Copyright 2018 [].
  10. Levi Pulkkinen, "Suspect in Greenwood fires has history of arson," The Seattle PI, Nov. 12, 2009 [].
  11. Casey McNerthney, "Big reward for siblings who helped catch Greenwood arsonist," The Seattle PI, Oct. 23, 2011, Updated Oct. 24, 2011 [].