[10 on Tuesday] Preventing and Responding to Fire at Historic Homes

Posted on: December 4th, 2012 by Emily Potter 1 Comment


It’s a small word, but a dangerous threat to historic structures. Once a building burns, it’s changed forever, which means the walls, furniture, and unique historic elements lose their original ability to tell their full story. And historic preservation is nothing if not about preserving the stories places tell.

Ironically for these older structures, the biggest risk of fire is during restoration, when there’s greater possibility of tools overheating, chemicals and their fumes mixing together, or larger numbers of people present, thus increasing chances of a fire hazard.

Within five minutes, fire can reach 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit -- hot enough to melt steel. Plus, afterwards, you’re often left with the destructive effects of smoke and water as well as fire damage, all of which can cause irreversible change.

Prevention is key. The following toolkit offers some tips and suggestions for both prevention and clean up.

But first… It should go without saying, but it never hurts to repeat: In the event of a fire, always evacuate immediately and call 911. And do not enter the house until your fire marshal has told you it is safe. Your personal safety (and that of your family and pets) is more important than anything else.

Ok, now back to the toolkit:

1. Do your own fire prevention inspection, especially if your historic home has been renovated or gone through major restorations. Make sure that there are still fire safety and prevention measures in place. These include fire alarms, sprinkler systems, and fire extinguishers kept handy.

2. Take extra precautions during the holidays, which is also a risky time for accidental fires. Be mindful when decorating, and watch out for fire hazards such as tangled cords, overloaded outlets, or lights and candles kept too close to fabric or dry pine needles. Don't forget to turn off the Christmas tree lights when you leave the house.

3. Keep important documents in a fire-roof safe, including any paperwork that offers insight into the history of the property. That way, if there is severe damage or loss, you can restore your house in a way that maintains its original historic character.

4. Understand that each case of fire damage is different. And no one understands these differences better than a professional. The best step you can take to ensure your historic home is taken care of after a fire is to hire a professional. Contact your local or state preservation office for recommendations.

5. Tell emergency responders that your house is old or historic, when it was built, or any other details they should be aware of.

6. Check the roof and each floor for smoke, sparks, and embers and inspect for structural damage. (Emergency responders should also do this, but it never hurts to take a look yourself once you are back in the house.)

7. Have heating, propane, and water systems tested before beginning to use them again. Fire may cause contamination or damage filters.

8. Help prevent further damage post-fire, such as water infiltration, by covering roofs, windows, and doorways with temporary tarps or other enclosures. This will help keep out rain, snow, and ice.

9. Brace (or remove if you can do so safely) unstable building elements such as walls, ceilings, or chimneys. This can help prevent collapse and give you time while you wait for a professional or consider your next steps.

10. Get the air flowing to remove residual smoke. Turn on fans and open windows. If there is water damage and the weather is warm, you may want to consider keeping the windows shut and turning on a dehumidifier instead.

Be cautious: If there is a lot of loose ash or other debris that could become airborne and be harmful, wait to turn on fans and open windows until it has been dealt with.

Check out our comprehensive materials on Preventing & Responding to Fire. We have many resources to help you figure out the next step to protect or assess your historic home in the case of a fire, including "Fire Safety in Historic Buildings" from Preservation Books.

Has your historic property been affected by a fire? How did you recover? Do you have any other helpful hints for preventing fires? Tell us below. We want to add to our Disaster Response pages, and your input will help. Thanks!

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Emily Potter

Emily Potter is a copywriter at the National Trust. She enjoys writing about places of all kinds, the stories that make them special, and the people who love them enough to save them.

10 on Tuesday, Tools

One Response

  1. Joyce Fisher

    December 5, 2012

    On Christmas Day, 2001, our beautiful historic home was heavily damaged by fire. Thank God we weren’t in the house!!! Also, I’m always thankful that I hadn’t left the Christmas tree lights on or any candles burning. I would have never been able to forgive myself if it had been my fault. The historic home was very important to our small town, not only was it a beautiful & unique piece of architecture, but it had quite an interesting history. The original owners, Hal & Violet Trovillion, had operated a private printing press from the back wing of the house. Their books are highly collectible and found in rare book rooms in libraries around the world. The Trovillion’s also played an important part in “Bloody Williamson” saga. Unfortunately, all these years later, the insurance company has never made us a settlement offer that is even close to half of what our contractor’s said it would take to restore the home. (Alas, since the fire was 11 years ago, the costs would be significantly higher today.) I’ve come to accept that, unless we win the lottery, we will never be able to restore the home & its gardens to their former glory. At Christmas especially it makes me sad, though I remind myself how lucky we were to live there at all. You can see a photo of a painting of the house and more information about Christmas in The Gingerbread House on my blog at peaceloveandjoyce.typepad.com