Let's face it: we could all do more to prevent fire damage to church property.
Especially when around 95% of wildfires in California are caused by people. That’s a startling statistic, and according to Cal Fire, an accurate one.
Our California summers bring dry conditions and heat, both huge factors when it comes to fire risk – especially if there’s any wind in the mix.
Churches in the dry foothills and mountainous areas across the state are most likely to be threatened by wildfire, but fire can happen anywhere – with multiple causes – and at any time.
Have you walked around your church buildings and property to make sure your ministry is fire safe?
You can’t totally eliminate the risk of a fire in your church, but you can make sure you cover the basics. Here are a few things you can do inside and outside to keep your church buildings, property, camp or retreat safe from accidental fire – especially during dry, hot California summers.
Prevent Fire Damage to Church Property: Inside
Let's start inside the church. If you haven't had an electrician come out and inspect your building's wiring now is the time to do it. Make sure the electrician you hire is licensed and bonded. Your electrician should come out to perform annual inspections of your church buildings to ensure that your wiring is up to code – maximizing safety. Be sure to:
Have the electrician check for old or damaged wiring, as well as for overloaded circuit panels (too many rooms on one breaker can be big trouble). While he’s checking the big stuff, you can:
Check your computer systems and electronic musical instruments to make sure you don’t have too many devices on extension cords or power strips and that the electronics are properly ventilated to reduce heat from the devices.
Building and electrical codes change over the years, and depending on how old the systems in your facilities are, they may need to be updated or replaced. Check with your local officials to see whether or not there is a grandfather clause that exempts your buildings from any new codes.
Check whether or not you need to obtain a permit from your local officials prior to having the electrical work done if any replacement or upgrade is required to meet code.
Next, if your church has a kitchen facility, make sure to:
Inspect all cooking and refrigeration equipment for worn and damaged electrical cords. Watch out for old coffee makers or hot plates. Make sure no cords or plugs have been “converted” to work in sockets they shouldn’t.
Check pilot lights and heat sources. The main goal here is to prevent fire damage to church property and your kitchen is one area that is particularly susceptible to fire. If there’s any question – have it checked out.
Store all flammable and combustible liquids (cooking oils, cleaning products, paint or aerosol cans) as well as dirty and oily rags away from heat sources.
Also, in addition to an electrician, have a licensed and bonded HVAC contractor come out to inspect and maintain your heating and air conditioning systems.
Don’t forget to maintain your fire detection and suppression systems. This is a must – it could mean the difference between minor damage and a total loss in the event of a fire. It may even save lives.
Check and test your smoke alarms monthly and swap out old batteries. Be sure to record on the detector the dates you replaced the batteries.
Have all fire extinguishers checked by the fire department annually. Make sure ALL staff knows where these are located and how to operate them … just in case of emergency.
Have the fire department or a certified profession check your fire suppression systems annually, especially if your church's systems are more complex.
Also, be sure to make sure any professional contractor that installs or maintains your fire suppression systems adheres to the new automatic fire extinguishing systems certification that went into effect July 1, 2017.
Prevent Fire Damage to Church Property: Outside
Next, let’s move outside your church buildings. When there’s dry weather, it’s important to make sure that any landscaping tools used on your church property are fire safe. Some tools to pay special attention to are lawn mowers, edgers/weed eaters, chainsaws and trimmers. These tools should all have spark arrestors attached to them.
In addition, if you’ll be using grinders or welders for any outdoor projects you’ll need to give yourself about 10 feet of clearance from anything combustible. You’ll also need to apply for a permit to use them in some areas.
Keep vehicles off of dead or dry grass and brush as heat from the exhaust can start fires.
Safely Removing Church Landscape Debris
In some areas it is common to burn landscape debris as a method of disposal. More often than not burning debris requires a burn permit from the local fire station and air districts. Even if these permits are obtained, burning debris may be restricted in the area or only allowed on specific “permissive burn days.”
Debris that can be burned includes dry, natural vegetation, grown on the property. No household trash or garbage should be burned outdoors at residences. Check your local ordinances to see whether or not that rule extends to your church property.
Here are some debris burning tips from the California Wildland Fire Coordinating Group:
Landscape debris piles must be in small 4-feet by 4-feet piles.
Maximum pile size is 4-feet in diameter.
Clear all flammable material and vegetation within 10-feet of the outer edge of pile.
Keep a water supply and shovel close to the burning site.
A responsible adult is required by law to be in attendance until the fire is out.
No burning shall be undertaken unless weather conditions (particularly wind) are such that burning can be considered safe.
Stay mindful of current weather conditions when burning. If it’s windy and the surrounding vegetation is very dry, it may be best to wait and burn landscape debris another day.
California Code Landscape Debris Maintenance and Fire Safety
Make sure your board and landscape staff familiarizes themselves with the California code that describes a property owner or tenant’s responsibility when it comes to fire prevention:
51182. (a) A person who owns, leases, controls, operates, or maintains any occupied dwelling or occupied structure in, upon, or adjoining any mountainous area, forest-covered land, brush-covered land, grass-covered land, or any land that is covered with flammable material, which area or land is within a very high fire hazard severity zone designated by the local agency pursuant to Section 51179, shall at all times do all of the following:
(1) Maintain around and adjacent to the occupied dwelling or occupied structure a firebreak made by removing and clearing away, for a distance of not less than 30 feet on each side thereof or to the property line, whichever is nearer, all flammable vegetation or other combustible growth. This paragraph does not apply to single specimens of trees or other vegetation that is well-pruned and maintained so as to effectively manage fuels and not form a means of rapidly transmitting fire from other nearby vegetation to any dwelling or structure.
(2) Maintain around and adjacent to the occupied dwelling or occupied structure additional fire protection or firebreaks made by removing all brush, flammable vegetation, or combustible growth that is located within 100 feet from the occupied dwelling or occupied structure or to the property line, or at a greater distance if required by state law, or local ordinance, rule, or regulation. This section does not prevent an insurance company that insures an occupied dwelling or occupied structure from requiring the owner of the dwelling or structure to maintain a firebreak of more than 100 feet around the dwelling or structure if a hazardous condition warrants such a firebreak of a greater distance. Grass and other vegetation located more than 30 feet from the dwelling or structure and less than 18 inches in height above the ground may be maintained where necessary to stabilize the soil and prevent erosion. This paragraph does not apply to single specimens of trees or other vegetation that is well-pruned and maintained so as to effectively manage fuels and not form a means of rapidly transmitting fire from other nearby vegetation to a dwelling or structure.
(3) Remove that portion of any tree that extends within 10 feet of the outlet of any chimney or stovepipe.
(4) Maintain any tree adjacent to or overhanging any building free of dead or dying wood.
(5) Maintain the roof of any structure free of leaves, needles, or other dead vegetative growth.
(6) Prior to constructing a new dwelling or structure that will be occupied or rebuilding an occupied dwelling or occupied structure damaged by a fire in that zone, the construction or rebuilding of which requires a building permit, the owner shall obtain a certification from the local building official that the dwelling or structure, as proposed to be built, complies with all applicable state and local building standards, including those described in subdivision (b) of Section 51189, and shall provide a copy of the certification, upon request, to the insurer providing course of construction insurance coverage for the building or structure. Upon completion of the construction or rebuilding, the owner shall obtain from the local building official, a copy of the final inspection report that demonstrates that the dwelling or structure was constructed in compliance with all applicable state and local building standards, including those described in subdivision (b) of Section 51189, and shall provide a copy of the report, upon request, to the property insurance carrier that insures the dwelling or structure.
(b) A person is not required under this section to maintain any clearing on any land if that person does not have the legal right to maintain the clearing, nor is any person required to enter upon or to damage property that is owned by any other person without the consent of the owner of the property.
Camp & Retreat Campfire Safety
You may find that your church has enough property to host wilderness retreats or summer camps. If you’re planning to gather round the campfire and you haven’t already – get a permit. Next, use these tips from the CWCG to make sure that your campfire area is safe and ready to prevent fire damage to church property.
Camping Fire Safety: How to Build an Open Campfire – Select a level, open location away from heavy fuels such as logs, brush or decaying leaves and needles. Clear an area at least 10 feet in diameter (local regulations may vary). Scrape away grass, leaves or needles down to the mineral soil. Scoop a depression in the center of the cleared area in which to build the fire and put a ring of rocks around it. Cut wood in short lengths, pile within cleared area and light the fire. The fire should be built no larger than necessary. Your fire must never be left unattended and the fire must be extinguished completely before leaving.
While the Fire is Burning: Open Fire Safety – Always keep a shovel and bucket of water nearby at all times. While the fire is burning, be sure there is a responsible person in attendance of the fire at all times. Never leave children around a fire unattended.
How to Completely Extinguish an Open Campfire – Use the “drown, stir and feel” method: drown the fire with water, then stir around the fire area with your shovel to wet any remaining embers and ash. Be sure to turn wood and coals over and wet all sides. Move some dirt onto the fire site and mix thoroughly to fully smother it. And finally, feel the area with the back of your hand to ensure nothing is still smoldering.
California Campfire Regulations & Restrictions
In addition to the codes for landscape fire risk, your board and staff should be familiar with campfire regulations and restrictions if you will be hosting your retreat or camp in the wilderness or on church property.
Health and Safety Codes
13007. Liability for Damage. Any person, who personally or allows another person to willfully, negligently or in violation of law, set fire to, allows fire to be set to, or allows a fire kindled or attended by him or her to escape to the property of another, whether privately or publicly owned, is liable to the property’s owner for any damages caused by the fire.
13008. Due Diligence Required. Any person who allows a fire burning upon his or her property to escape to the property of another, whether privately or publicly owned, without exercising due diligence to control such fire, is liable to the owner of such property for the damages to the property caused by the fire.
13009. Expense of fighting fires, liability for. Any person who negligently, or in violation of the law, sets a fire, allows a fire to be set, allows a fire kindled or attended by him or her to escape onto any public or private property will be financially responsible for the firefighting costs.
Public Resources Code
4103.5 Campfire Defined - “Campfire” means a fire which is used for cooking, personal warmth, lighting, ceremonial or aesthetic purposes. This includes fires contained within outdoor fireplaces and enclosed stoves with flues or chimneys, stoves using jellied, liquid, solid, or gaseous fuels, portable barbecue pits and braziers, or space heating devices which are used outside any structure, mobile home, or living accommodation mounted on a motor vehicle. “Campfire” does not include portable lanterns designed to emit light resulting from a combustion process.
4432. Neglecting Campfire - A person shall not leave a campfire, kindled or attended by him or her, burning or unextinguished unless one of the following requirements are satisfied: He or she leaves some person in attendance. The fire is enclosed within a stove, oven, drum, or other nonflammable container, in such manner that the fire cannot escape from the container. No person shall allow a campfire, kindled or attended by him or her, to spread after it is built.
4433. Permits Required - A person shall not light, maintain, or use a campfire upon any brush-covered land, grass-covered land, or forest-covered land which is the property of another person unless he or she first obtains a written permit from the owner, lessee, or agent of the owner or lessee of the property. If, however, campsites and special areas have been established by the property owner and posted as areas for camping, a permit is not necessary. A written campfire permit duly issued by or under the authority of the United States Forest Service is necessary for use on land under the jurisdiction and control of the United States Forest Service.
4434. Campfire Escape - The escape of any campfire from the control of any person who is maintaining the campfire is prima facie evidence that such person was negligent in maintaining the campfire.
Of course these aren't the only fire risks your church faces, but they are some of the bigger ones. If you've got more questions about what additional risk your church could face, we can help.