The tragic fire in the cathedral Notre-Dame in Paris this week has delivered what has been described as a “wake-up call” for major churches in Belgium, and their preparedness or lack of it should such a catastrophic fire occur. In Brussels, a renovation that took place in 2000 in the cathedral of SS Michael and Guluda saw the installation of water conduits in six upright columns within the building, which in the event of a fire would allow fire services immediate access to a water supply to tackle the blaze. That same year, a fire damaged the roof of the Beguinage church further downtown. According to a spokesperson for the Brussels fire brigade, the cathedral still contains a good deal of wooden construction, particularly in the roof.
In the cathedral of Tournai, longer and higher than Notre-Dame, systems for the detection and tackling of fire are in place, but the authorities responsible have called for a review of procedures in the event of fire, for example in determining which works contained in the cathedral should be given priority for evacuation.
According to the fire brigade in Antwerp, readiness has its limits. “It’s not possible to be completely prepared for a major fire such as took place in Paris,” said Kristof Geens, spokesperson for the city brigade, speaking on VRT Radio 2. “We have our procedures, for example for high-rise buildings, and we exercise regularly in the historic centre of Antwerp.” The cathedral in Antwerp (photo) also has water columns built into the structure, the problem of dust is regularly taken care of, and the masterpieces by Rubens inside the cathedral are on wheels for rapid evacuation.
The cathedral of St Bavo in Ghent has escape destruction by fire on three occasions. “It is far from self-evident to make a building like this fire-proof,” commented rector Ludo Colin. The cathedral authorities have taken various measures over recent decides, he said, including the compartmentalisation of the roof and attic spaces and the installation of fire doors and walls. “But all those measures have become dated in the meantime, and we are now busy compiling a dossier for bringing the measures up to date.” Measures planned include smoke detectors and sprinklers.
St Bavo’s contains what is beyond a doubt Belgium’s most important artwork, religious or otherwise: the altarpiece The Adoration of the Holy Lamb by Jan and Hubert Van Eyck. A study is being carried out into how the recently-renovated work can be evacuated if need be.
The St Rombald cathedral in Mechelen lost part of its roof to fire in 1972, and wood construction was replaced by concrete in parts. “That gives a rather ugly contrast, but rebuilding was a priority,” said Bram Van der Auwera, responsible for management of the church fabric. The repairs also saw the installation of water pipes leading to the top of the building, and the splitting up of some areas into compartments to make firefighting easier and more effective.
Finally in Liege, renovation works on the skeleton of the St Paul cathedral saw the installation of “ultra-modern” fire detection systems. Works are continuing on the cathedral, expected to last another 18 months, after which reconstruction of the roof of the southern wing will begin.