How Difficult Was it to Set Fire to the Ancient Oak Beams in Notre Dame?

The following video features a TV discussion with the retired architect-in-chief at the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris. His remarks seem to contradict the assertion I made yesterday about the upper regions of Notre Dame being a pile of tinder just waiting for a match. He says the 800-year-old oak beams are in fact very difficult to ignite.

A correction in the translation: After Vlad had uploaded the video, the translator sent me a note about the date of the architect-in-chief’s retirement. She said he retired in 2010, so the relevant text should have read “2000s” instead of “’90s”. I’ve fixed the transcript, but readers should bear the correction in mind while watching the subtitled video.

Many thanks to Ava Lon for the translation, and to Vlad Tepes for the subtitling:

Video transcript:

00:00   So you’re telling us that this type of timber doesn’t burn like that? —Ah, no. You know, oak that
00:04   is 800 years old, it’s very hard!
00:08   Try to burn it. Well, I’ve never tried. But oak, OLD oak —
00:12   Phew… It’s not obvious at all. You would need a lot of kindling to succeed.
00:16   And there, I don’t know if there was any… No, there I’ll stop joking. I think that… no,
00:19   it stupefies me a lot! —And where does this thought lead you? To what hypothesis does it bring you?
00:24   I don’t have any hypothesis that I could tell you.
00:28   Which hypothesis could I propose?
00:32   That… that it was quick!
00:36   That we couldn’t do anything else in order for it not to go this fast.
00:40   I’m lost in conjectures. You know, we did — in
00:44   Notre-Dame, just before I retired, meaning in the 2000s,
00:48   we updated all the electrical wiring of Notre-Dame. So there’s no possibility of a short circuit.
00:55   We updated to [conform with] the contemporary norms, even going very far, all the detection
01:00   and protection [systems] against fire in the cathedral. With elements
01:04   of measurement indicators, of aspirations, and so on,
01:08   which allowed us to detect a beginning of a fire. At the bottom of the cathedral I had
01:12   two men, at all time, who are there day and night, and who are there
01:16   to go and have a look — the minute there’s an alarm. And to call the firefighters the minute
01:20   there’s no doubt… —They are there permanently? — Permanently, yes.
01:24   Could there be a failure of the alarm mechanism? Impossible?
01:28   Everything is possible. Everything is possible. But I have trouble believing it, because
01:33   well, it was a colossal work, and then, you know
01:37   it’s like at those construction sites of historical monuments, especially Notre-Dame, we have
01:41   technical, normative and control support and so on, and so on, that’s significant.
01:45   That is significant. That you won’t see anywhere else. So there…
01:49   I have to say that I AM rather stunned. —And during the thirteen years, that you were
01:53   the architect-in-chief of the building, you had no knowledge of
01:57   the beginning of a fire…? It never happened? —No. I’m happy about that.
02:01   Jerôme. —You can see well, however, that the work
02:05   of restoring a historical monument which dates from so many centuries ago
02:09   accentuates the fragility of the monument itself,
02:13   and one of problems that also arises is the surveillance of this type of construction site…

11 thoughts on “How Difficult Was it to Set Fire to the Ancient Oak Beams in Notre Dame?

  1. Oak takes for-ever to ignite, I know, I used it for heating in a coal stove in house I rented in NorCal. I will say this however, once it is ignited, you can’t put it out and it burns very hot, 1200F to 1300F. I had to use BBQ lighter fluid to get the fire started. This is why I would bee looking around for rag fibers that had been soaked in MEK and a glow plug similar to what is used now in gas furnaces to ignite the natural gas as pilot lights are passe.

    • pilot lights are passé

      You’re right. In order to get a stove with a pilot light, we had to take the lowest end model they had. No point in having an electric/electronic ignition for a stove to be used during electric power outages.

      It has served us well. The pilot light in the oven is perfect for making kombucha or raising bread (if we still ate bread). I also use it to dry out eggshells to grind up and use in the garden.

    • Thank you for the full upload. Was definitely worth watching it. This man’s body language (ex-chief architect) screams foul play. He was speaking with the anger of a righteous man and got even angrier when he had to stop (maybe better word contain) himself at answering some of the questions or “speculate”. Many times things not said speak volumes.

      • Having spent time on it when translating and subtitling, I can only totally agree with that. Hi face at various occasion. His choice of words, when he’s ask about hypotheses, is especially interesting too. @ 3min:

        “- A quelle hypothèse ça vous amène?
        – Je ne vois pas d’hypothèse que je puisse DIRE. Quelle hypothèse on pourrait DIRE. Que…. Que ça a été vite.”

        The thing is that “dire” (= say, tell) is not a typical word to use with “hypothese” in French. You’d rather say “faire” (=make), “Suggérer” (=suggest), “émettre” (=utter). But no, he uses “dire”. Twice. And in the end he doesn’t make any hypotheses, just an observation, that “it was fast”.

        As is anything else is “unsayable”, unspeakable.

        • complement: just google “dire une hypothèse”, with the inverted commas. You’ll find less than 50 occurences in the entire web, all using non-verbal forms of “dire” (“autant dire”, “c’est-à-dire”), only one of them being a university paper explaining that non-native speakers need some level of linguistic help when studying in french, and mentions somewhere in the text that “on trouve rejeter ou énoncer
          une hypothèse mais pas *jeter ou *dire une hypothèse)”, i.e. that you don’t “say an hypothese”…
          Mr Mouton is himself a perfectly fluent, native french speaker.

          • merci pour la leçon en “collocation”.cf Thésaurus Larousse.
            It is good to know such sharp analysts here, even in a non- political field.

  2. To light a fire one first needs kindling – a blowtorch aimed at a beam of oak wouldn’t set it alight, it would burn the timber in the sense of making it glow, but once the blowtorch was pointed in another direction the ‘burning’ timber would die out.

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