IN 1863, FIVE YEARS AFTER THE cornerstone was laid for St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, the largest fire disaster in terms of lives lost struck another church more than 5,000 miles to the south, in Santiago, Chile.
Thousands of people, mostly women and children, had gathered in the Church of La Compania on December 8, 1863, to celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. To mark the occasion, an estimated 20,000 gas lamps were lit in every available space inside the church, which dated from the 17th century, according to published accounts. A statue of the Virgin Mary caught fire, and the blaze spread in minutes. The single main door was not adequate for all to escape, and many worshippers were trapped inside. A New York Times article from the time estimated 2,500 people died in the fire, but some estimates put the number even higher.
Since then, fires in religious buildings have not reached the level of devastation seen in the La Compania fire, but recent damages are still significant. According to the NFPA report “U.S. Structure Fires in Religious and Funeral Properties,” published last year and available online, there were an average of 1,600 fires per year in the U.S. from 2007 to 2011 in churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, and chapels. During that period, fires in religious structures resulted in average annual property damage of $105 million, and an average of 16 injuries and two deaths annually.
According to the report, sprinkler systems were present in only 12 percent of the fires reported. When wet pipe sprinklers were present, the average loss per fire was $18,000; when sprinklers were not present, the average loss was $67,000 per fire, or 73 percent greater.
About a third of the fires were caused by cooking, while heating equipment and arson each accounted for 16 percent of the total number of fires. Candles and lighting each accounted for 4 percent of the reported fires.
According to the report, fires in religious and funeral properties have decreased 53 percent over the last 30 years, from 3,500 in 1980 to 1,660 in 2011.