Santa Fe firefighters prepared if cathedral burns; roof fire 33 years ago quickly extinguished
Santa Fe knows what it’s like to see its cathedral on fire.
The difference is, however, the damage 33 years ago wasn’t nearly as catastrophic as the fire Monday that engulfed the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
In 1986, just three days before Easter, a fire started on the roof of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. A torch workers were using to fuse roofing materials heated the copper portion of the roof and ignited tar paper, sending smoke billowing, according to published reports.
Firefighters extinguished the blaze in 15 to 20 minutes. The damage appeared to be minimal, and confessions were heard 90 minutes after the fire started.
But if the 1986 blaze is a distant memory, local officials have long worried about another fire at one of the city’s most sacred sites.
Santa Fe Fire Marshal Rey Gonzales Jr. said fire crews have developed an annual fire plan to prepare for the worst.
“We have had our crews do walk-throughs of the entire building, including the rafters on the top and their floor spaces down below in the basement areas,” he said, adding the building meets “fire flow requirements” for hydrants and offers good aerial access with 26-foot fire lanes.
“We’ve done our due diligence as much as possible without having to actually go in there and retrofit everything, [which would be a] financial burden on the Catholic Church itself,” he said.
Fire Chief Paul Babcock said the department would mount an aggressive response if a fire similar to the one in Paris threatened Santa Fe’s cathedral.
“Every [fire] station would respond to that,” he said. “Our minimum staffing across the city is 34, so all 34 firefighters would be at a second-alarm [fire].”
The cathedral basilica is the mother church of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe. Like the Notre Dame Cathedral, which draws an estimated 13 million visitors annually, the Santa Fe structure is one of the city’s most popular attractions.
Gonzales said the cathedral, a towering structure built between 1869 and 1886, doesn’t have a sprinkler system.
“There is a fire alarm that is attached to the rectory portion of it, and they do have some [smoke alarms] in the cathedral itself, but it doesn’t have your full-fledged fire alarm with horn and strobes,” he said.
Gonzales said the fire department “definitely” recommends a sprinkler system, but added that one wouldn’t be required unless the cathedral underwent a significant modification or remodel.
“It met the code requirements at the time,” he said. “The code doesn’t require that they go in and [retrofit] it.”
A spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Santa Fe declined to comment.
Babcock said the annual “pre-fire plan” allows firefighters to become familiar with the building.
“They know about all the exits. They know about all the utilities shut-offs. They know about, for example, the Conquistadora location,” Babcock said, referring to Santa Fe’s oldest and most-venerated statue of the Virgin Mary. “This is all documented, so even before the first arriving unit gets there, they’re able to pull up this information.”
Babcock said the fire department would feel the pressure of saving a landmark and historic building such as the cathedral if it caught fire again.
“But what is more pressure is the increased hazard that it creates,” he said. “The ceiling is so tall.”
Gonzales said he had been following the news of the fire in Paris on social media.
“I do follow a lot of firefighters from around the globe, so to speak,” he said. “It’s extremely devastating and something you would never want on your watch in your jurisdiction. My heart goes out to those firefighters and the town itself. I definitely feel for them.”
Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.