Bourgeois makes urgent call to churches to assess fire safety


Following the devasting fire in the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, Flanders’ minister-president has called on managers of cathedral and church property to assess their ability to withstand such disasters

Are Belgium’s cathedrals safe?

Flemish minister-president Geert Bourgeois has called on those responsible for managing and caring for the region’s cathedrals and churches – the church itself, cities and provinces – to assess their properties for fire safety. The call follows the fire in Paris’ Notre Dame cathedral that destroyed its 850 year-old roof and 19th-century spire.

Coincidentally, the minister-president had recently asked the Centre for Religious Art and Culture to create security and safety measures for churches and cathedrals. The organisation has since published recommendations and is holding info sessions for authorities and church staff.

Many cathedrals this week have admitted that, while they have taken precautions, being able to douse the kind of flames that were seen emitting from the Paris monument on Monday evening is problematic. Renovations over the last 20 years have been key to the centuries-old structures being able to withstand fire, though firefighters are hesitant to say whether the systems would be enough to control such flames.

During a renovation in the 1990s, Brussels’ St Michael and St Gudula Cathedral, for instance, was outfitted with water hoses that can quickly be accessed by firefighters. They can attach them to hoses fed by water hydrants outside, which will save precious time in the event of a fire.

Rubens’ wheels

But, admitted Brussels firefighter spokesperson Walter Derieuw, whether a fire like the one that broke out in Notre Dame could be easily extinguished is far from sure. “There is a lot of dry wood in such a construction, especially in the roof,” he told Bruzz. “When a major fire broke out in the Begijnhof church in 2000, it was also the roof that was destroyed.”

While precautions have been taken in the Brussels cathedral, including an emergency procedure for saving artworks, firefighting drills have never been carried out. It’s simply considered too dangerous to access the high ceilings and roofs of such buildings.

Staff at the cathedrals in Antwerp and Ghent report similar situations. Both have a hose system to make hooking up to hydrants as efficient as possible. And both have systems in place to save artworks and heritage objects. In Antwerp’s Cathedral of Our Lady, little wheels are even attached to works by Pieter Paul Rubens in case a fast evacuation is needed.

You can never be completely ready for the kind of fire we saw in Paris

- Kristof Geens

The attic of Antwerp’s cathedral is also regularly cleaned to prevent a build-up of any flammable substances. Even dust is considered a fire hazard.

But “you can never be completely ready for the kind of fire we saw in Paris,” said Antwerp fire department spokesperson Kristof Geens on Radio 2. “We do have procedures for firefighting where there are high ceilings, and we carry out drills in the historical city centre.”

Ghent’s Sint-Baaf’s Cathedral has seen three fires in its history. Home to the Van Eyck masterpiece “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”, the cathedral has compartmentalised its attic and placed fire doors between the rooms to prevent the spread of fire.

“But even these measures are dated, and we are now working on a plan to adapt them,” rector Ludo Collin told Radio 2. The plan includes smoke detectors and sprinklers, which are not currently present.

Photo: The Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp, gutted once by fire in the 16th century, is home to invaluable artworks by, among others, Peter Paul Rubens