Burning History – Quick Overview of Firefighting in History

Written by Ashley Carollo

I had never given a thought to firefighting until October 9, 2017, 2am actually, as my family was speeding away from the most destructive fire in California’s history. Dozens of emergency vehicles were passing us heading in the other direction towards the fire.  It was a surreal experience packing up the kids, valuables, and pets while checking on the neighbors and keeping an eye on the cell alert system for the latest news. It wasn’t until sometime passed, and we were on the way to the closest hotel with a vacancy, that I began to wonder about my city’s response to this blaze as well as the three others that were quickly burning over 100,000 acres.

Fortunately, I’m writing this from the lovely home we ran from that night and it ended well for us. There have been other fires and opportunities to read up about how firefighting has evolved through the ages.  

Unsurprisingly, the first written record of organized government firefighting was in the Roman Republic. As was generally the case in Rome the problem of fire was approached systematically and thoughtfully after a rash of fires broke out in various parts of the Empire. Pliny the Younger wrote upon witnessing one, “The occasion of its spreading thus far was partly owing to the violence of the wind, and partly to the indolence of the people, who, manifestly stood idle and motionless spectators of this terrible calamity….You will consider, sir, whether it would be advisable to institute a small band of firemen.”

Emperor Augustus took this advice to Emperor Trajan and ordered the formation of the Vigiles in 6 AD. This was only after General Marcus Crassus, a generation earlier, had made an impression by forcing the sale of burning homes to himself before he would give the order allowing his slaves to put out the fire. Of course, homeowners were given the option to buy back their saved homes at inflated prices after the fact.  

A depiction of the fire burning through the city.
image of Great Fire of Rome from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Fire_of_Rome#/media/File:Robert,_Hubert_-_Incendie_%C3%A0_Rome_-.jpg

With a new political order came a more public oriented viewpoint and the Vigiles were not only made up of professionally trained freeman (not slaves), their organization and official State support produced a team with better equipment and success than what had come before.  

Well before fires became an urban issue there were still fires to deal with. Native cultures had been existing in highly prone fire regions, such as western North America and Australia, and contending with fires for as long as humans had lived there. Using and relying on their incredible knowledge of the land they knew not only to expect fires in certain seasons, but they knew how to avoid uncontrollable wildfires by burning controlled burns during the off season. Today multiple fire experts are turning to Native practices to learn these techniques as it is becoming obvious that dealing with fires will be a regular thing.  

File:The Rim Fire in the Stanislaus National Forest near in California began on Aug. 17, 2013-0004.jpg
image of a wildfire from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Rim_Fire_in_the_Stanislaus_National_Forest_near_in_California_began_on_Aug._17,_2013-0004.jpg

As people moved into the cities the threat of fire became even greater. It was one thing for a fire to go up in a barn out in the country, but quite another for a fire to burn down a building housing dozens of people. If that building was next door to another crowded building and another….well, the danger was obvious. 

One of the earliest modern fires was in 1666 when a blaze took hold of London and burned for 4 days. By the time it was over half the city was gone with a monetary loss of 10,000,000 pounds of damage up in smoke. This fire, like the early Roman fires, was fought with bucket brigades, volunteer manpower, and picks and axes to pull down adjacent buildings to create fire breaks. Samual Pepys, a clerk for the Royal Navy, was a first hand observer of the Mayor of London’s decision to blow up parts of the City to stop the fire. He wrote in his diary, “Having staid, and in an hour’s time seen the fire: rage every way, and nobody, to my sight, endeavouring to quench it, but to remove their goods, and leave all to the fire, and having seen it get as far as the Steele-yard, and the wind mighty high and driving it into the City.”

image of Great Fire of London from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Fire_of_London#/media/File:The_Great_Fire_of_London,_with_Ludgate_and_Old_St._Paul’s.JPGimage

What they lost in damages they won in hard earned wisdom. Moving forward the City was redesigned to withstand future infernos. Building codes to rebuild the city that had been growing wildly since the Middle Ages suddenly were specific enough to include building materials, height restrictions, architectural styles, even wall thickness. Streets were spaced accordingly and the overhanging second stories that were indicative of Tudor-style architecture were banned. Sir Christopher Wren redesigned a major city to face the next fire without falling into the same fire spreading traps that tripped up the original city. 

While they excelled at rethinking architecture the city failed to address the way the firefighting brigades were organised. Instead of looking at is as a public administrative level endeavour, they left this up to old fashioned capitalism. Insurance companies, with names like “Phoenix,” were created with their own brigades to protect private buildings from fire. Once a homeowner paid their fee a “fire mark” was placed on the front of the building. When a fire occurred this indicated to a private fire brigade that your house could be saved. If your neighbour didn’t have fire insurance their house would be left to burn. Or if they had a rival fire insurance company, their fire must wait for that particular crew to arrive even if your crew was already on the scene saving your house. It was utterly chaotic.

Woodcut image showing how firehooks are used to help tear down buildings to stop fires from spreading, as seen during a fire at Tiverton in Devon, England, 1612
Image of firefighting in 1612 in Devon from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Fire_of_London#/media/File:Firehooks.1612.png

A couple hundred years later another major city was almost lost, this time on the other side of the Atlantic, in Chicago. Like London before most of the buildings were made of wood, and in this case the roofs were primarily tar and shingle. While it’s a matter of fun speculation how the fire got started; Was it a cow that kicked over a lantern, or a group of poker players who knocked over the lantern that started the fire in the O’Leary’s barn? It may not matter what kicked it off. What all the fires had in common were the conditions that spread them. It was hot, windy, and following a summer of drought.  

Human error played a role in the spread when a fire-watcher (on top of a tall fire lookout) sent the fire trucks in the wrong direction. Also a contributing factor was human fatigue. The fire brigades had spent much of the week putting out smaller fires around the area. This sounds familiar because it was also a factor in Sonoma, CA the night of our fire. There is only so much humans can do in the thick of it. Chicago had 175 firefighters in a city of 324,000 people and used horse drawn steam-pumpers to put out the blaze.  

Chicago in Flames by Currier & Ives, 1871 (cropped).jpg
Image of the Great Fire of Chicago from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Chicago_Fire#/media/File:Chicago_in_Flames_by_Currier_&_Ives,_1871_(cropped).jpg

The old saying goes, “If you don’t learn from history, you are doomed to repeat it” and it seems that preparing for nature’s inevitable destruction is a good example of this often used phrase. Hopefully looking into the past allows those in charge of protecting our increasingly urban lives a unique perspective. We are not alone in these disasters, and those before us have learned lessons that are helpful to us as we move into an uncertain climate future. 


References:

https://www.bartleby.com/9/4/2042.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vigiles

https://imperiumromanum.pl/en/curiosities/crassus-fire-brigade/

https://www.yesmagazine.org/environment/2020/01/13/australia-fires-aboriginal-land-management

https://www.pepysdiary.com/diary/1666/09/

https://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/discover/how-great-fire-london-created-insurance

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Chicago_Fire

featured image courtesy of Wikimedia commons image found here


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