Why Notre-Dame Cathedral, a medieval stone church, has burned so quickly

notre dame on fire april 2019
Notre-Dame Cathedral burning in Paris on April 15, 2019.

Associated Press

Notre-Dame Cathedral, the intricately carved gothic church that has been standing in the heart of central Paris for more than 850 years, is on fire.

The blaze erupted late Monday afternoon as stunned tourists and locals stood on the streets of Île de la Cité, an island in the middle of the Seine where the church is. Many people took out their phones and filmed the bright orange flames billowing into the sky.

The two iconic stone bell towers at the front of Notre-Dame were not immediately consumed by the flames, but the roof of the church that connects those towers to the flying buttresses at the back was quickly engulfed in yellow-tinged smoke.

Construction crews had been working on a $6.8 million renovation of the church’s spire. That spire, pictured below, fell to the flames about an hour after the blaze broke out. A church spokesman told French media that the medieval frame, which is like the church’s skeleton, was also alight. That is not good news for the church.

Notre-Dame Cathedral on April 15, 2019.
AP Photo/Thibault Camus

The hulking framework of wooden beams that supports Notre-Dame is composed of huge pieces of timber, which is ripe for catching light. The supports are even called a “forêt” (or forest) because they’re enormous pieces of oak. This “charpente” (or frame) was built from 1,300 oak trees, enough wood to fill more than 21 hectares of land, La Tribune reported. According to Notre-Dame de Paris, the church framing is more than 100 meters long, and the beams that are burning have been standing there since the 13th century.

Even the church’s website says, almost forebodingly, that “fire is not impossible” for the gothic masterpiece that took about 200 years to build.

The wood framing sits under a lead roof, which weighs 210 metric tons.

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