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

Since last week’s disastrous fire at the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris there has been a lot of discussion about what could possibly have set those 800-year-old oak beams ablaze. The fire has been officially designated an accident, with several different theories advanced about how it might have started.

In the following video, a German craftsman who works in wood tries a series of experiments in an attempt to set a very old oak beam on fire. It’s not as venerable as those formerly in the cathedral of Notre Dame — a mere 250 years old or thereabouts — but it’s very hard and dry, and proves intractably resistant to ignition.

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

As a reminder of the significance of this issue, here is last week’s video of a discussion about those ancient oak beams, featuring the retired architect-in-chief at Notre Dame:

Video transcript #1:

00:00   Notre Dame of Paris — Thoughts about the material of wood
00:09   Good Morning you Russians! Everyone fit?
00:12   So, I’m Unikum Barock, Craftsman. I’ve never made a video, but it will all work out.
00:22   Notre Dame. Yes, wood, fire, broken — really s***ty.
00:28   As a wood craftsman, a few thoughts went through my mind. For instance,
00:33   how could this happen? The news says it was a cigarette from a craftsman that
00:38   was forgotten, thrown away then boom. Somehow I don’t really believe that.
00:45   That’s why I got out of my storage room, the sun is blinding a bit, from my storage room
00:51   I brought out this wooden beam. It is from 17 hundred something.
00:56   This thing is so dry, the only thing dryer is the wine in the wine cellar. You understand.
01:05   So we want to find out when it will start to burn.
01:18   Since I’m a non-smoker, I will take something more extreme than a cigarette.
01:25   I have here a chemical grill lighter cube. This way we’ll have a bit stronger version.
01:33   If this doesn’t set it on fire, neither would a cigarette.
01:38   As far as I know, cigarettes go out when they aren’t being smoked.
01:44   Unless it is extreme windy. Then the flame would be fanned.
01:49   In a cathedral with a roof, that shouldn’t be the case.
01:55   Let’s light this thing and let it burn. I’ll do a time lapse. Be right back.
02:11   So, we’re back. Well…
02:17   The time lapse was around six minutes. As you see, you see nothing.
02:26   Quite simply, nothing happening.
02:38   Let’s see what happens with welding.
02:42   So, the second theory is that during renovation work welding caused the fire.
02:52   That’s right. So probably some of you will wonder about welding wood.
02:56   So by the way, yes, wood can be welded. Google helps.
03:00   So… and now we are going to test whether normal welding will set this beam on fire.
03:57   Well…
04:01   Even with some air circulation here outside, which usually encourages a fire,
04:07   a full welding rod attached to the beam couldn’t set it on fire.
04:17   The next test will be somewhat more extreme than a cigarette or welding.
04:26   A liquid fire igniter also known as gasoline.
04:29   I’m going to pour it into the hole made by the metal mass of the welding rod.
04:38   Technically term, metal mass. Oh well, that’s it.
05:14   So…why do we always say “so”? So, so, so.
05:19   So, OK. Conclusion: 5 minutes and 48 seconds. That’s what the timer says.
05:26   And the fire is out!
05:32   So now for another test. Without editing.
05:58   The surface has been burning for about ten minutes. I’m going to remove it.
06:13   It is, well…I’m going to clean it up and see if it is burning a bit, but I don’t think so.
06:28   It is smoking some. I’m just going to let it smoke and if a fire starts I’ll start the camera again.
06:37   So now it is out!
06:42   Even with the bit of smoke that is still visible, nothing else is going to happen.
06:47   I want to see this thing burn! Now even more extreme!
07:25   What else can I do? It is out. It goes out right away.
07:31   People. Write me. What else should I try?
07:36   Everything short of building a giant bonfire underneath it.
07:42   I don’t have explosives. Wouldn’t help.
07:46   What else should I do to get this fat beam to burn?
07:58   Well…this is the conclusion I come to. It wasn’t a cigarette.
08:05   It wasn’t caused by welding either.
08:12   And it wasn’t a bit of little gasoline either. My guess it would have to be fairly well planned.
08:21   Anyone who ever tried to start a campfire knows.
08:27   In order to set a beam of wood on fire you need a quick fire at the beginning.
08:37   With a bit of kindling and so forth. Or a whole lot of gasoline. Gas, gas, gas.
08:44   Or something similar.
08:48   Well, as I’ve said. Please write in the comments below what else I should try.
08:54   With the exception of… I can’t think of anything.
08:59   Oh well, forget it. Just write me and tell me how to set this fat beam on fire.
09:08   I also think the beams that were in the cathedral were even a bit thicker.
09:15   The one I have is 15cm by 15cm (6″ x 6″). Or 17cm. (6.5″) And dry as a fart.
09:22   Even with the propane blowtorch for the few minutes. I don’t remember how many,
09:26   I’ll have to look. Even a full-blown blow torch didn’t make it burn.
09:33   Not even gasoline, man, you saw it yourself. So.
09:37   As I’ve said, this is my first video ever, indulge me. Otherwise… otherwise what?
09:47   Give it a thumbs up or thumbs down, I don’t give a s***.
09:51   This is just about… just a thought about… what we are being told.
10:02   That thing really burned, didn’t it?
10:06   All politics aside. Whether it was George wearing a headdress or Bernd the craftsman.
10:12   This, that or the other. Doesn’t matter. This is not the right place for that.
10:17   And now I’m going inside, and these materials as well.
10:24   As I’ve said, please share this video as you wish. Whatever you feel like doing.

Video transcript #2:

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…

36 thoughts on “Once Again: How Difficult Was it to Set Fire to the Ancient Oak Beams in Notre Dame?

  1. When Hampton Court Palace caught fire the oak beams, though found to be charred on the outside, were otherwise unaffected, and well capable of continuing to bear a load.

    A family member years ago rashly smoked a cigar in a seventeenth century oak four-poster bed. He placed the lit cigar in a little alcove in the carved bedhead above his head and fell asleep. The following morning he found the cigar had charred a very small depression in the old oak. That is all that happened.

  2. In light of the videos, the question changes from “What accident set the wood on fire” to “what planned event could be engineered to set the wood on fire?”. It’s a real question. Let’s say there was a group that intended to burn down ND. Chances are, unless they were really, really sophisticated, their first few attempts would fail. It’s very counter-intuitive that wood would be so difficult to set on fire.

    One scenario that comes to mind is the use of thermite, a military-style combustion substance that can quickly and easily melt metal. The 9-11 conspiracy people universally suppose that thermite was the only substance that could be planted in the towers to make the steel girders melt and the tower collapse. Regardless of what happened with 9-11, I have little doubt that a few deposits of thermite planted in the wooden beams would cause them to burn. Perhaps that’s something for the craftsman in the first video to try.

    By the way, I’d like to know what testing was done for combustibles in the Notre Dame case. It was a pretty common complaint for the 9-11 conspiracy people that there was no testing done for thermite in the massive cleanup action. It seems the most obvious thing in the world to test like crazy for everything under the sun in the Notre Dame ashes, but in light of the very quick announcement that the fire was accidental, I need some concrete confirmation that common-sense testing, in fact, took place.

    • No testing has been done: personnel were not permitted into the building, because it has not been deemed safe to enter.

    • My common sense opinion is that thermite on its own wouldn’t cause the beam to burn any further than that proportion of it that came into direct contact with the beam. Stick a beam on a fire and the beam will burn only for so long as the fire burns.

      • Everything here seems to say you can’t set the logs on fire. But obviously, the logs burned. So what you have to do is find out some scenarios where the logs would actually catch on fire, and then work back. This article may provide some ideas:

        Obviously, the official investigation can’t be taken seriously until it provides credible scenarios for heavy oak beans to catch on fire, does thorough and extensive testing for combustion agents and accelerants in the vicinity of the fire, and also conducts a though background check on the origins, skills, and history of everyone on the construction crews and security teams.

        • Fault-tree analysis was only method that solved the Challenger disaster. Same would work here most likely without having to set foot on site.

          • Sounds promising. I guess the most obvious root cause question that pops to mind is, was it the beams that provided the primary fuel for the fire, or were they irrelevant, and the fire mainly was fed by either more flammable materials already there, or combustibles brought in especially for the occasion, such as straw, wood chips, cotton rags and the like?

  3. I honestly think we won’t find out anytime soon. If ever. Consequences of that knowledge could easily lead into civil war in France if that truth ever saw light of the day. What we do know is that couple of hours after fire broke, officials came out with fiction about accident. It was fiction since there was no investigation of course, but news media happily went with the story. None of them really asked questions like this woodworker did with his couple experiments. That was first very telling clue. Second one was the statement of “something called president of France” immediately calling for national unity. Only problem with that little fantasy of his is that France was already united. Against him. It was also very interesting to me to notice the time and speed in which millionaires and billionaires of France readily jumped opportunity to “help with cause” of rebuilding also in a time when French public doesn’t look at them in let’s say very positive light, since they got tax breaks left and right from again deeply unpopular president, while plebs got stuck with receipt for all of those little games played between president and one percenters. Unfortunately or fortunately I have suspicious mind, and I’m always looking to ask one question first. Who benefits and how? First thing that ran through my head was burning of Rome, by then deeply unpopular emperor to shift public attention on something else. He found Christians as excuse. Someone today also possibly found them… or their revered cathedral

  4. The post-fire response is eerily similar to the post-fire response following the fire in the two-story building in Little Mogadishu in Minnesota a few years back.

  5. Let’s not kid ourselves- the fire at Notre Dame was another act of terrorism by the Islamic barbarians, plain and simple. It is so obvious that I don’t know why the French authorities insist on their stupid BS claim that it was an “accident.”

    It was no more accidental than the thousands of other churches and synagogues that have been burned down, vandalized or destroyed by their Muslim masters who don’t even try to hide their joy at the latest atrocity that they’re responsible for.

    The burning of Notre Dame was carefully planned for maximum effect by the barbarian invaders who now control France and most of Europe. I hope that this is something else for the Yellow Vests to protest and that this horror is not soon forgotten or swept under the rug by Macron and his poltroons.

  6. I’d like to see the German fellow do the same tests, but first raise the beam a few feet and then do the tests if possible from underneath the beam instead of on top of it.

      • What if the fire started outside, on the roof where there was plenty of air circulating? IIRC, they could not locate the fire after the first alarm.
        An accelerant could have been dropped on the exterior of the steeple roof to serve as tinder for the beams below.

    • Thats the first thing I thought. Heat and flames travel upwards. Lighting a fire on top of a log is almost impossible. It has to start underneath, which would mean there had to be some kind of tinder, I doubt a cigarette would do it. But he should try that.

  7. Whether accidental or arson, the beams would have required accelerant or kindling. One interesting statement in the video is how hard it would be to start or include such a beam to build a campfire? Very hard.

    Maybe there was a gasoline generator or compressor wiped down with rags left on the floor or piles of wood shavings. Who knows. I do not. IMO a cigarette dropped on the floor would die of loneliness. If dropped inside a wall it is a different story. I hope there is a competent arson investigation.

    Also, was there any insurance? In the US the insurance companies drive a lot of the standards.

  8. The story about how they didn’t have sprinklers because they were worried about the fire potential of the writing (or something like that) also seems suspicious.

    Sprinklers would have presumably saved the place, and can be fully mechanical (bimetalic valves). I’ve seen them in similar buildings. They work quite nicely, and a malfunction would – instead of a fire – lead to (relatively mild) water damage instead, which can be fairly easily controlled by having someone turn off the valve the minute that it’s noticed that a sprinkler has triggered for no reason. It makes you wonder why they took such poor care of such a building!

  9. A few observations. Cigarettes do not go out if they aren’t being smoked. Maybe they do in Europe, but not American cigs. That’s why they can be used as a slow fuse for a firework, M80, etc. A cigar will go out. You can’t weld wood, but he may have been joking. Remembering that except for Benny Hill and Monty Python there is no humor in Europe I think he was joking. Hah. Lastly, and most importantly, not all farts are dry.

    But that said he really tried to get that sucker lit and his video cast a lot of doubt on what the media is reporting was an accident. In the US we had Slick Willy who forced the FBI to stand down as they got close to uncovering the evidence that the Oklahoma City bombing was perpetrated by an Iraqi, but Jayna Davis pulled the curtain back on that one. Though not may noticed. Slick Willy jumped in again to hide the truth on TWA Flight 800 being shot down by the US military, but Jack Cashill is staying vigilant on that one and and won’t back down. And so the French have their Slick Willy in the person of Macron to lie to them. Wonderful.

    • ^, actually, in New York, cigarettes do indeed go out if not being smoked, much to the chagrin of smokers. A law was passed some years ago. In order to cut down on the epidemic of smoking related house fires the state mandated that cigarette companies introduce a fire retardant into the paper and/or tobacco. All perfectly safe. Cough.
      Don’t know about other states.
      You are right about farts though.

      By the way, one could make the same argument about nice fresh Doug Fir 2 by 4’s. Kinda hard to light alone, though not as hard as old oak timber. Every structure fire starts small (or explosively) at least in my experience as a small time volunteer firefighter of a couple decades. What often makes the difference between a full fledged structure fire and a room-and-contents fire is what else is in the fire space (fuel load) and how long till fire suppression begins. I don’t know the answer to either one of these questions in the ND fire. At this point, if I were a fire investigator, I’d make and announce no conclusion.

      • The retardant is required for sale in the U.S. Became law in the 1960’s because too many “smoking in bed” incidents.

        As to the “beginning” of the fire I think that focusing on the beams is a mistake. They would be the last things to catch. What was the roof made of (planking, shingles, asphalt)? Were there layers of paint/sealer or other chemical covering? The actual roof would probably have a lower flashpoint than thick beams and would burn hot and fast once started unless it was a very up-to-date (1980’s or later) fire retardant material. Certainly not beams, those are support, not cover.

        As to the origin … “One hears many things; whether the true is among them is difficult to tell.”

        • I don’t smoke cigarettes, and never have. But my dad smoked up to 3 packs a day right up till he died of lung cancer in ’99. And he had an unusual way of enjoying his cigarettes. He would light up a cig and then leave it in the ashtray until it had consumed itself all the way to the filter and then he would light the next one which would also pretty much smoke itself. This would go on until the room he was in was so full of smoke that every breath was heavy with smoke. For everyone in the family. It sucked. The point is that his cigarettes never extinguished themselves, they burned to the filter whether puffed on or not. I don’t think there were retardants in his smokes, rather chemicals to KEEP the cigarettes burning. This was in California.

        • I thought the law was much more recent, perhaps the late 90’s or early 00’s. It was definitely at the state level. Cigarettes bought in NY went out; ones bought in PA or GA not so much.

    • Regular cigarettes don’t go out in Europe either. Only roll your own cigs go out. The German guy needs to demonstrate trying to burn the beam from underneath. Its virtually impossible to light a log from the upper surface.

  10. Old oak is indeed hard to set ablaze. But oak was not the only material inside the roof.
    There was also a maze of wooden walkways and handrails. They would be made of a cheaper and lighter type of wood like spruce which ignites quit easily.
    And what about the planking between the oak frame and the lead roof. Was this also made of a lighter type of wood? In general the expensive and hard to work oak would be used only for load carrying structural members.
    Once the fire took hold on those easily combustible materials the temperature in the confined space would soar and become high enough to ignite the oak beams.

  11. I used to work at a log cabin building place, where we often used burn barrels during the winter – lots of free wood around.

    The problem with using gas to light a fire is that it burns up too fast. If I wanted to light a bunch of large pieces of wood, I’d pour oil over them, and use a small amount of gas to get the oil started. Large pieces of wood take a lot to get a self-sustaining fire started. I’m talking about dry pine enclosed by a barrel, which keeps the heat in somewhat -surely much easier to start than a windy rooftop, although the wind would make for a hotter fire once well started.

    That flash near that guy on the roof makes me think of the gas/oil combo I found most effective for starting log ends on fire. A flash of light on a security camera could well be more of a flash of heat. Electronic cameras are more sensitive to heat than the human eye- they can be used to check if your TV’s infrared remote is working.

  12. I am not sure divine intervention could be excluded. I have been doing a bit of research, and the result of the fire is meaningful if you look from the right angle. The main altar of reformed church post Vatican council II got incinerated and turned to ashes. While the old altar is still standing.

  13. Looks like the reconstruction workers were seeping the beams in gasoline, oil, or what other highly flammable liquid you have, in order to spread it so quickly. Great experiment from that German guy! I thought it would catch fire quickly, so good to know oak wood (and other hardwoods, I suppose?) does quite the opposite when drying out.

    The French architect has a good point too, there are too many “chances” in this “accident”: there are so many alarms and all were malfunctioning? There are two workers to check and both were absent? I’ve read in another news report that the firefighters got an alarm 23 minutes before being sent over there and the dispatcher apparently checked a camera, saw nothing and figured it’s a false alarm. Does anyone believe that? There’s just no way a Frenchman would risk that in something as important as Notre Dame and not sent at least a small car to check on the spot. Unless it was a “Frenchman”, but I highly doubt they work for the firefighters.

    And then there’s this “all workers left two hours prior to the fire” information. Unless a worker left a propane torch on, aimed at a beam, for two hours (and I don’t know if the tanks are even big enough to burn for that long?), then that’s also a whole lot of BS. And even then it wouldn’t spread so quickly. It would burn in one spot somewhere in a corner and probably go out on its own anyway, if the baroque beam is anything to go by.

    It makes the whole ordeal just that much more terrible though, I wish the revolutionary spirit of the French would blaze up just as fast and furious as their cathedral!

  14. The next elections to the European Parliament are held between 23 and 26 May 2019. So if the cathedral burning was a terrorist attack, the authorities would never let the public know. It would give too much ammunition for the eurosceptic and mass immigration opposing parties. Besides the timing was too perfect just before Easter holidays for it to be just another accident.

  15. The roof of York Minster was ignited by lightning in the 1980s. Assuming the two roofs were similar in construction that certainly shows you can get them to burn without malfeasance. This isn’t to suggest Notre Dame was hit by lightning, just that they can burn accidentally. I also think the French would cover it up if the truth were that Moslems set the fire, they already do their best to hide all the other church desecrations that are perpetrated on a regular basis. In my mind the mystery remains- and the French will never tell us if it was intentional.

    • The average lightning bolt contains a billion joules of energy, enough energy to power a 60 watt bulb for about 6 months. I guess that’s more energy than the German guy tried in any of his experiments.

  16. Okay, it’s impossible to start the beams on fire by accident. But an accident is still the most likely cause, because we all know that it could not be linked to all those church fires set by Muslim immigrants. Everyone knows that Muslims are peaceful, tolerant, and love infidels, especially their French hosts. Muslims would never burn Notre Dame. Maybe you or your car. Possibly some less important churches, but not Notre Dame. So, it has to be a accident.

    It has to be a accident, because if it isn’t that would be the end of Macrone and the French elite who keep pushing for more barbarian immigration. So, don’t expect much from the investigation into this fire.

    • They won’t be able to cover this up if it was arson. It might take a while but it will come out. By a while I mean a couple of years possibly until someone with knowledge can’t stand the cover up anymore and leaks.
      Then, Katy bar the door!
      Until then, we are forced to carry on with the destructive behavior of our elite class. When this will end is anyone’s guess.

  17. I build many fires every winter. In my fireplace. If one places two larger pieces of wood next to each other with a narrow space between and start something small burning in or beneath that space the chimney effect will get those two larger pieces burning and before long – burning very well. It is entirely possible that something of that nature happened at ND.

    And, I’m no Richard Feynman (but he was my sister-in-laws uncle).

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