Fire at the  Santa Marina de Balboa Church, León (Spain)

By Cristina Escudero, Unit for Risk Management and Emergencies in Cultural Heritage (UGRECYL) and PROCULTHER Focal Point (Spain) (1)

© www.illeon.com

The accident
It was 3 minutes past 8 in the morning of Tuesday 4 May when we received a call from Olivier Bao, Chief of the Ponferrada Fire Brigade, informing us of an already extinguished fire that had broken out in the early hours of the morning in a church declared Bien de Interés Cultural – BIC (Site of Cultural Interest) (2) in Balboa, a small village in León (Spain), 43 km from Ponferrada (the largest town and where the municipality’s central emergency service that serves other smaller towns, such as Balboa is based). All the necessary data and information were quickly gathered, that is: the movable assets involved, the extinguishing procedure implemented, the evacuated elements, etc. The Unit for Risk Management and Emergencies in Cultural Heritage – UGRECYL was activated and deployed to the site given the impact of the accident and the fact that one of the most important cultural heritage sites  of the area was affected, i.e. the main altarpiece – an important Renaissance piece (3).

Upon arrival at the disaster premises, with the interior covered in soot, we realized  that the situation was actually better than we had expected; more than 90% of the altarpiece – only the edge of two reliefs and secondary elements forming part of the architecture were affected (4) – was saved thanks to the excellent job of the firefighters, who were aware at all times that their intervention  was not on an ordinary building but on a cultural asset that could be damaged not only by the dynamics of the fire itself but also by the means used to extinguish it. The water could have damaged the delicate layers of gilding and the preparatory layer that supports the polychromy, while also causing movement in the wood, and if action was not taken quickly, it could have lead to bio-deterioration.

Situation of the interior of the church after the incident: smoked walls and main altarpiece affected on the left side, the relief and sculptures were removed by the fire-fighters.
© Javier Garcia Bueso

In order to extinguish the fire in the altarpiece and avoid affecting neighbouring areas, the firefighters focused exclusively on the source of the flames, using very little water in this process; thanks to pressure control they were able to spray it as much as possible, avoiding an uncontrolled jet of water. The affected elements and the round sculptures in the lower area were also dismantled, and tactical smoke dispersal was carried out to reduce the deposition of soot on the artworks. The UGRECYL, in cooperation of all actors involved, verified on the field that the church continued to meet security conditions – subsequent thefts had to be prevented – and proceeded to assess the situation in order to give the necessary instructions, determining the actions to be taken to restore normality and recover the affected altarpiece together with the rest of the movable assets. It is worth mentioning that the previous good condition of the building (5) and the main altarpiece (6) proved essential to avoid more severe damages.

Analysis of the candle, possible cause of the fire
© Javier Garcia Bueso

Among the causes being investigated as the point of origin or source of the fire are an electrical short-circuit or a badly extinguished candle placed on an old, highly flammable polyester carpet. Causes that could have been avoided if some basic preventive safety measures had been taken by the owners, such as the maintenance and technical check of installations and the replacement of candles with their low-intensity electrical equivalents, as already reiterated by the Junta de Castilla y León (7).

The installation of fire detection alarms – in the case of BIC buildings – directly connected to the fire station would be a very useful measure, especially in this rural area characterised by the extensive presence of cultural heritage over a large territory with difficult access routes – mostly narrow roads with sharp curves – causing delayed response times.

A Safeguard Plan for buildings of cultural interest is an essential tool that not only highlights the risks and shortcomings identified, but also establishes prevention and improvement measures such as those outlined here and, at the same time, prepares all those involved by establishing operational procedures for rapid intervention.

In this case, in which we value more what has been saved than what has been lost, especially considering that its value transcends the merely material, there will be those who think that we have not suffered worse damage thanks to luck. Luck? No, it was not luck, it was the result of a joint effort and hard work as well as the involvement of experts from both the emergency service and cultural heritage fields, which have deemed that ensuring the protection of cultural heritage against disasters is a complex matter but extremely important.

Field exercise carried out during the training days, Ponferrada Radio Museum.
© Javier Garcia Bueso

In Ponferrada, this process began in 2016, when in response to the concerns expressed by the fire brigade and the municipal heritage technicians, the Regional Government of Castilla y León organised in this city the “II TECHNICAL DAYS: THE EMERGENCY SERVICES MANAGEMENT IN  CULTURAL HERITAGE OF CASTILLA Y LEÓN”, without doubt a milestone that laid the foundations and raised the awareness of the professionals involved, allowing the sharing of operations and technical language.

This collaboration is currently being reinforced through other experiences, such as the elaboration of the Safeguard Plan for the cultural heritage of Ponferrada/La Tebaida, with a territorial approach including 8 buildings declared BIC, as we are firmly convinced that it will be an important precedent in prevention and emergency preparedness actions for the protection of cultural heritage in rural areas.

Experience that we will reveal in the next PROCULTHER newsletter.

To be continued…

(1) Original version of the article (in Spanish)
(2) The highest protection status for cultural heritage conferred by the Spanish State
(3) A meeting was held on site to assess the situation and take the relevant decisions. We are grateful for the collaboration and participation of Olivier Bao -Chief of the Fire Brigade-, Javier Garcia Bueso -Chief of the Museums of Ponferrada-, Beatriz Rodríguez -Patrimonio Obispado de Astorga-, Amelia Biain -Chief of the Territorial Service of Culture-, Antonio Ferrer -Parish priest of Balboa-, Juan Jose Lopez Peña -Mayor of the municipality- and the Guardia Civil
(4) In Spanish, “mazoneria” is the name given to the set of architectural elements that frame and divide the altarpiece.
(5) Restored in 2006 by the Junta de Castilla y León with an investment of 305.914,44 €
(6) Restored in 2011 by the Junta de Castilla y León with an investment of 108.450 €
(7) “Guide to fire prevention in heritage buildings” “Guía de prevención de incendios en edificios de Interés Patrimonial”   in Spanish only