Fire poses one of the greatest risks to historic places, but its prevention and extinguishment can also present a high risk to historic materials. Installing a traditional sprinkler system can negatively impact the character of a historic place, and the high volume of water used to quell fires can oversaturate fragile features. In the 1990s, a new solution was developed in Finland to mitigate the risk of fire, reduce subsequent water damage, and prevent major disruptions from installation: HI-FOG mist fire suppression systems. This innovative technology has protected historic places worldwide, including a historic cathedral in the remote community of Unalaska on the Aleutian Islands of Alaska.
Designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1971, Holy Ascension of Our Lord Cathedral is one of the oldest Russian Orthodox churches in Alaska. The cathedral’s history dates to the 1750s when Russian Orthodox missionaries started preaching to European fur traders and Alaska Natives. The current cruciform cathedral was built in 1896, replacing earlier churches on the site. Few modifications have been made to the cathedral despite ongoing use by the congregation, community, and visitors.
Holy Ascension has faced a heightened risk of fire throughout its history. The wooden cathedral hosts worship services that involve lighting many candles. Housed within the cathedral is a priceless collection of historic church icons and artifacts, transported to the Aleutian Islands over rivers, mountain ranges, and the ocean in treacherous conditions. Fire could destroy the church and its collection in the approximately five minutes it would take firefighters to respond.
Since 2013, the congregation, in partnership with Russian Orthodox Sacred Sites in Alaska (ROSSIA), a nonprofit focused on preserving Alaskan churches and religious iconography, has discussed upgrading fire protection at Holy Ascension. Congregants and stakeholders worried that Holy Ascension could burn down like other churches in Alaska, including St. Michael’s Cathedral in Sitka.