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As renovation looms, how will officials protect the iconic Salt Lake Temple from fire?

SALT LAKE CITY — It was like a scene out of a horror movie.

The Notre Dame Cathedral was suddenly ablaze on Monday, the flames dancing in front of the darkening Paris sky.

Firefighters saved the majority of the structure, except for its world-famous spire, which collapsed into the remains of the cathedral that draws more than 13 million visitors a year and 30,000 people a day.

No one was injured. Patrons gathered outside the church to sing hymns, including “Ave Maria,” a mournful melody highlighting the ironic twist of fate that such devastating damage should occur during Holy Week, the days of Christian religious celebration leading up to Easter.

But the stunning conflagration raises questions for other major architectural structures with religious significance, including those in Utah, such as the Salt Lake Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which draws more than 3 million to 5 million visitors each year.

The church is scheduled to detail lengthy renovation and retrofitting plans for the temple on Friday, and as Notre Dame burned it brought clearly into focus the need for care during what firefighters say can be a particularly dangerous time for historical structures.

Provo City firefighters respond to a large fire at the historic Provo Tabernacle. Friday, Dec. 17, 2010.
Provo City firefighters respond to a large fire at the historic Provo Tabernacle. Friday, Dec. 17, 2010.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

"We make every effort to protect our historical facilities from fire or any damage," church Presiding Bishop Gérald Caussé told the Church News Monday. Bishop Caussé, a native of France, watched with sadness as he and his wife, Valerie, noted the devoted sacrifice of so many over the centuries to build such a grand cathedral for worship in Paris.

"Because renovation work may put our historic facilities at greater risk, we use fire prevention plans. These plans typically include 24-hour fire watch, fire suppression systems and extinguishers placed strategically around the facility, and extensive training of staff and workers."

Is Salt Lake City prepared to protect not just the temple, but Utah's other historic structures, such as the Cathedral of the Madeleine, the Utah Capitol and the Salt Lake City-County Building?

The Deseret News spoke to fire and emergency management officials in Utah about fire lessons learned from similar fires in Utah history, at the Provo Tabernacle and the Governor's Mansion, which burned when a Christmas tree caught fire in 1993. Just what hazards still keep them up at night?

Creating a fire safety habit

Utah fire officials say there are procedures already in place to prepare for and respond to a fire at one of the state’s historic buildings.

“We’ve done our best to make sure these buildings have the latest and best resources available to them as far as fire prevention,” said Salt Lake City Fire Capt. Adam Archuleta.

The Utah Capitol boasts a sophisticated fire prevention program, with a fire alarm system, eight sprinkler zones throughout the building and a smoke evacuation system, in addition to other measures, according to Allyson Gamble, executive director of the Utah Capitol Preservation Board.

The Utah Capitol underwent renovation in 2007 in Salt Lake City, Utah, as seen from above in this file photo from March 15, 2007.
The Utah Capitol underwent renovation in 2007 in Salt Lake City, Utah, as seen from above in this file photo from March 15, 2007.
Deseret News Archives

The Salt Lake Temple has its own large underground water supply to supplement the city’s underground water supply in case of a fire, said Archuleta.

In the event of a fire at the Salt Lake Temple, the Salt Lake City Fire Department has a plan in place to immediately deploy enough firefighters and firetrucks to the scene, he said. Instead of the department sending a standard three engines and one truck, he said it would send six fire engines and five trucks at a minimum as an initial response.

“We would have upward of 50 firefighters there within the first 10 minutes or so,” said Archuleta. “This would give us a huge advantage, and at that point we could expand as necessary.”

Citizens also have a role to play in fire prevention and safety, said Joe Dougherty, spokesman for the Utah Division of Emergency Management.

“They should have an idea of where the exits are, where my alternate exit is going to be if I can’t use my primary exit,” he said. “And that works whether you are a patron of the temple, or you are attending a church of another religion. If you're in a public building or you are in your own home, you need to identify the exit out of every room. If we build that type of habit, we’ll make sure that we are going to be as safe as possible when we’re in a public space.”

Learning from the past

Questions prompted by the Notre Dame fire about Utah’s historic buildings are not merely theoretical.

In December 1993, a fire caused by faulty wiring on the Christmas tree in the Utah Governor’s Mansion gutted the ornate building, requiring a long and painstaking renovation to restore the mansion’s historical interior.

And in 2010, the Provo Tabernacle experienced a major fire, ignited by a lighting technician who mistakenly set a 300-watt light fixture on a wooden speaker box in the attic, according to a Provo Fire Department report. The fire cost $15 million in damage, and the building had to be completely renovated.

Archuleta remembers the Provo Tabernacle fire clearly. The fire was a “historical loss because the building was integrated into the history of the community," he said. It was rebuilt, however, into a second church temple for Provo, saving as much of the original building as possible.

Firefighters use bolt cutters to open the front gates as smoke pours from the second floor of the Governor's Mansion in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Wednesday morning, Dec. 16, 1993.
Firefighters use bolt cutters to open the front gates as smoke pours from the second floor of the Governor's Mansion in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Wednesday morning, Dec. 16, 1993.
Deseret News Archives

“It was a place where people congregate and it was a place where people had, for all intents and purposes, spiritual life-changing experiences. So the building itself, yes, it was just brick and mortar to an extent, but that represents the values of the community.”

While the losses associated with house fires can be traumatic and emotional for individuals and families, the structures themselves can be somewhat easily, cheaply and quickly rebuilt, Archuleta said.

Not so with historic buildings.

“The cathedral or the City-County Building or the Provo Temple, these are landmark structures that simply cannot be replaced,” he said. “They could be rebuilt to an extent,but nothing like they were originally. So we consider that when we’re making our fire tactics and strategies.”

Sometimes, he said, firefighters themselves can be affected by the emotional nature of battling fires that consume structures with great historical or religious significance.

“Make no mistake, everybody is aware of what the staples of the (Utah) community are from a religious standpoint,” said Archuleta. “However, it’s our obligation as firefighters to remove as much of the emotion as possible once we engage in a firefight.

“It’s a testament to the humanity of the firefighters that you have the ability to just remove yourself for a moment, to make the most logical and rational decisions based off of standard firefighting procedures and tactics,” he continued. “Afterward is when you’re going to have that emotional investment and effect."

‘The greatest danger is during construction’

Firefighters use the term "target hazards" to describe historic structures that could be especially vulnerable to fires, meaning that there is something about those particular buildings that presents unique risks.

For the Cathedral of the Madeleine or the Salt Lake Temple, he said one of those hazards has to do with the sheer volume of people that visit the buildings at all hours of the day and night, requiring fire officials to have enough firefighters and resources available to fight a fire there anytime.

But the buildings themselves also present fire-safety hazards, said Brad Larson, fire marshall with the Unified Fire Authority.

"The greatest danger is during construction," he said.

Much attention has been drawn to the fact that the Notre Dame Cathedral fire occurred while the building was undergoing $6.8 million in renovations.

Fires are common during building renovations, according to Matthew McFarland, spokesperson for the Unified Fire Authority.

Sometimes that’s because during construction a building’s power may be shut off, resulting in a disconnection or compromising of a building’s fire alarm system, he said. Construction might also cause the exposure of wood or other materials to open wires, welding or propane heaters used to keep space warm in the winter.

That’s why construction companies are required by state law to have a “rigid” fire prevention program, said Larson.

Besides the risks of construction, older buildings themselves can be especially prone to fires — sometimes deceptively so, said Archuleta.

Gamble, with the Utah Capitol Preservation Board, said the Utah Capitol was designed with fire suppression in mind when it was built in 1916.

Rather than wood, the Capitol was primarily built of concrete and steel, with a wood facade painted by artists on the interior of the building. The building is now equipped with sophisticated sprinkler systems and other fire prevention measures.

But fire experts say even when the exterior of the building is made of a solid, non-highly flammable material, it can still be highly vulnerable to its interior contents made of modern materials, specifically the use of synthetic materials to furnish the building, such as carpets and furniture.

And when buildings have been renovated several times, each renovation brings more and more “void spaces,” where old plumbing and electrical wiring has been removed, leaving areas of space in the walls, Archuleta said.

“Fire can travel between the walls," he said. "So even when we think we have a handle on the origin area of the fire, the fire may be spreading all around us without us even being aware of it."

Correction: An earlier version stated the Provo Tabernacle fire occurred in 2011. It was in 2010. It also incorrectly stated the number of visitors to the Salt Lake Temple was more than all five of the state's national parks combined. National Park Service figures show the five parks collectively drew more than 10 million visitors in 2018. It also stated the Salt Lake City-County Building is gothic in style. It is Richardsonian Romanesque.