A Brief Overview of Great Fires in History2013-08-28T16:42:40-04:00

David Dubrovich
October 2000

The security professional's job can be basically put as asset protection and therefore they must be able to protect the assets under their watch against all threats. This includes the very real threat of fire. Few things can be as damaging both physically and psychologically to a business as a fire. As far back as the Roman empire the tie between security personal and fire protection was recognized. The "Vigiles of Rome," which was made up of civilians whose task was to control crime and help in fighting and preventing fires in Rome, was perhaps the first group to combine security and fire protection. To understand this connection better it is important to look at the history of fire and especially those fires that were so devastating as to cause reforms in the area of fire protection. It is only after studying the great fires in history that one can understand the overlap in the security and fire protection professions.

The first of these great fires which have made their mark on history forever is the Great Fire of London in 1666. London at this time was very much a medieval European city in that it consisted of mainly wood frame houses which were packed tightly together in most parts of the city. Buildings which were made of materials which were fire resistant were few and those that were are usually churches. In addition, London had just been through a very hot and very dry summer. It was not a matter of would there be a fire but instead how soon would the fire start. So on September second 1666 the king's baker awoke to find his room filled with smoke and discovered that a fire had somehow stared in his house. To make matters even worse, what was called the "Belgian Wind" had been blowing from the east for several days before. The match stick dry wood frame houses, the strong eastern wind, and the lack of water counted for the destruction of greater than 130,000 homes and business. Over one hundred thousand people were suddenly homeless. Despite the dryness of London and the wind there was a good chance that the fire could have been contained but there was a gross lack of coordination among fire fighting efforts. When there was finally a somewhat coordinated effort at fighting the fire the Lord Mayor who was in charge was indecisive and this was to be London's downfall. If during the first twelve hours of the fire he had ordered houses to be pulled down to create a fire break (as he was advised to do), disaster would have probably be adverted.

Closer to home, here in the U.S. in 1871 the mid-west suffered the Peshtigo and Chicago fire. On October eighth 1871 a fire started in the O’Leary’s barn; friends and neighbors rushed to help put it out but after about ten minutes they realized that they were unable to contain it and called the fire department. By the time the fire department arrived several more minutes later the fire had spread to other nearby houses and the disaster called the great Chicago fire had begun. As in the case of the London fire there was a stiff wind blowing and despite the fact that several buildings were made of bricks most were made of wood and went up in flames like paper in the blaze. Even the unpaved streets were covered with pine boards which quickly caught fire. The fire department was up against too much. They neither had the man power or equipment to deal with a disaster of this magnitude. There was little anyone could do but sit and watch the fire burn unchecked. Luckily, two days after the start of the fire, it started to rain which allowed the fire department to bring the fire under control. When the smoke cleared more than three hundred people lost their lives and 18,000 buildings were destroyed. One whole section of the city four miles long and one mile wide was completely flattened by the fire.

Shortly after the Chicago fire was another fire which developed in upper Michigan and Wisconsin that made the devastation in Chicago pale in comparison. It had been the driest summer anyone could remember in the area around Peshtigo, Wisconsin. The main industry in this area was logging and the huge piles of sawdust outside of the many sawmills were bone dry. Small fires had been breaking out all summer, burning into the ground where they would slowly build up heat and intensity in the roots of trees and dried peat. Finally the many widespread fires had created vacuums in which winds rushed at hurricane force and created a fire storm that set every building in Peshtigo on fire in minutes. The fire then roared through the neighboring towns and cities. When it was all over 1,200 people had be killed and over one million acres of forest had been burned.

Despite the devastation of these terrible fires there has been some good that has come out of it all. Better fire fighting equipment, better fire alarm systems, new requirements for making new buildings fire resistant, and even a fire prevention week in the U.S. brought on by the Chicago fire. New standards on fire alarms in homes and laws on fire exits came into existence. It is only by looking at the mistakes of the past that we can know how to prevent future loss and disaster, which is what a security professional is sworn to do.

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