Dutch monuments also vulnerable to fire: experts

A devastating fire at Notre-Dame in Paris, 15 April 2019
A devastating fire at Notre-Dame in Paris, 15 April 2019Photo: LeLaisserPasserA38/Wikipedia

The devastating fire in Notre-Dame again showed how vulnerable historic buildings can be. And the same is true for Dutch monuments, Bjorn Peters, consultant on fire safety of monuments at DGMR and guest lecturer at TU Delft, and Walter de Koning of the foundation for monument care and restoration ERM said to NU.nl.

"The risk of fire is actually always present in monumental buildings of this kind", Peters said to the newspaper. "Certainly in the roof of this type of medieval building there is a lot of dry wood. If that catches fire, and it takes a while before the fire is discovered, then it will quickly spread - as you saw in Paris."

The biggest step in preventing these types of fires, is taking the proper precautions, Peters said. "It's often small things that can have major consequences if you don't pay attention", he said. "Make sure that the roof construction remains clean. If there's a lot of dust, the environment is more susceptible to a spark. Or make sure that the electrical installations are well maintained."

Proper maintenance is key, De Koning agrees. Dry wood and wiring are major risk factors. "Certainly old electrical wiring in bell towers is not nearly as safe and durable as the plastic it is made of today", he said to the newspaper. "They used to be made of cotton or wax. That will decay and if you don't look after it, wires will touch each other at some point." The same risk is posed by the dried seaweed that used to be used for isolation. "That is very dangerous", he emphasized. "Then too little maintenance is asking for difficulties or a short circuit."

Of course, it is also possible to install sprinkler systems. But like with maintenance, such precautions cost money - often more money than an old church or museum has available. And protecting the aesthetic of the building is also an important consideration when it comes to monuments. There is no one solution to prevent all problems, both experts emphasized.

"Both denominations and museums have a limited budget: it is a matter of setting hard priorities. If the same amount can also be used to make an investment that is guaranteed to generate a lot of attention, such as a new masterpiece, then the choice is made quite quickly", Peters said. 

According to NU.nl, recent statistics show that on average there is a fire at one of the 60 thousand Dutch national monuments three times every two years. Most of these involve small fires that are quickly discovered and have limited consequences.