FALL RIVER, Mass. (WPRI) — After a catastrophic fire destroyed the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, a Fall River district fire chief shared the department’s contingency plan in case something similar were to happen.
Nearly 40 years ago, the city’s own Notre Dame was undergoing renovations, just like the historic Notre Dame was in Paris. The fire eventually spread across the street, not only burning through the church, but also local homes and businesses.
Fall River District Fire Chief Jeff Bacon was six-years-old when the Fall River church burned. Bacon said he was baptized at Notre Dame.
“I remember standing at the end of my driveway and looking up the street, and I remember the entire street was a huge ball of flames,” he recalled.
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Bacon said the Notre Dame fire in Paris brought those memories back. He also said it served as a reminder of the dangers his crews and community could face if a local church were to burn.
“We all study, as part of our promotional process, you know, tactics and strategies specific to church fires,” Bacon said.
Bacon said in gothic-style churches, crews first assess the hanging ceiling space — looking for the easiest point of access to bring water into the building.
“When a fire gets hold of those hanging ceilings, it can go undetected,” Bacon explained. “It builds up to a much larger fire, and by the time it bursts through the roof, it becomes a major conflagration.”
District fire chiefs in Fall River, according to Bacon, regularly assemble “pre-plans” regarding how they would handle a fire at any of the city’s churches. Bacon said he has pre-planned St. Anne’s Cathedral, which closed for good last year, a couple of times in the past.
“Our Notre Dame fire is the example,” he said. “Many times we know we’re not going to really stop the fire in that church once it has gained that much control.”
Bacon said since St. Anne’s is now vacant, his biggest fear is the fire going undetected for quite some time before fire crews can get to it.
“It’s going to have such a head start on us,” he said. “We’re not really planning on putting that fire out. Our plan is to protect the neighborhood around it.”
According to Bacon, the challenge they face with parishes in Fall River is most of them were built in neighborhoods, unlike the Notre Dame in Paris, which sits on an island and is not close to other buildings.
“We didn’t have the luxury of it being contained on an island and away from other structures,” Bacon said looking back on Fall River’s Notre Dame fire in 1982.
“This was a labor intensive and resource intensive fire,” he added, speaking of the Paris fire. “They had the manpower and number of apparatus they needed to successfully stop that fire and they did a phenomenal job.”
Bacon said personally, he has pre-planned three or four churches in city, but said there are nine other district chiefs who have also pre-planned other parishes.
“With a lot of those churches, it’s going to be the same fire but in a different place,” he said. “We could pull up to any of the historic churches in the city and use what we’ve learned from St. Anne’s and use that plan to fight the fire.”
Bacon said another issue Fall River fire crews face is many of the city’s churches do not have a sprinkler system, which would result in the fire spreading even faster.