Famous Fires

When speaking of famous fires, there are always a few that quickly come to mind, for example, the Great Chicago Fire, The Great Fire of London and the San Francisco Earthquake Fire. In reality, most of the major cities of the world have been burnt to the ground, at least once. In some cases, these great fires have been caused by war, like when Sherman burned the city of Atlanta, destroying some 3,000 businesses, hospitals, homes and schools. More often, they have been the result of natural disasters, like earthquakes, and poor methods of construction, made worse by the difficulty of fighting fires that reach a certain size or cover multiple locations.

The Great Chicago Fire started in the evening of October 8, 1871. While records show that it did likely start in a barn owned by Patrick O’Leary and his wife Catherine, there is absolutely no evidence that it was the fault of the family cow kicking over a lantern. Propelled by Chicago’s never-ending wind, the fire spread over 2,000 acres, right through the heart of the city, in a little over 24 hours. The death toll was under 300 people, but more than 90,000 were left homeless at the start of the frigid Midwestern winter. The massive destruction resulted in Chicago rebuilding based on what was learned from the fire and Chicago’s fire department became a model for other large cities. National Fire Prevention Week was created to commemorate the Great Chicago Fire and has been instrumental in increasing awareness and promoting prevention in an effort to keep tragedies like this from happening again.  

The Great Fire of London began on September 2, 1666, in a baker’s shop, and lasted for several days. We think of London as being this wonderful European city built of stone and brick. Not so in 1,666. In those days, there were closely packed houses constructed mainly of very dry and brittle wood. The fire burned for four days, destroying more than 13,000 homes, churches, including St. Paul’s Cathedral, and other buildings. Fortunately, and quite amazingly, very few lives were lost. In addition, there was actually a benefit that came out of this catastrophic event. The area of the city in which the Great Plague had settled the year before was entirely destroyed by the fire, in effect, sterilizing and making it inhabitable again. London, like Chicago, learned the lessons of this monstrous fire and rebuilt using brick and stone. It’s not as easy as being able to click here to stop a fire, but the building codes are much more progressive.

The San Francisco Earthquake Fire was started by the rupturing of the San Andreas fault on Wednesday, April 18, 1906, but the scale of the fire was more because of broken and leaky gas lines and firefighting errors. San Francisco’s Fire Chief, Dennis T. Sullivan, died in the initial earthquake, leaving a lack of leadership that led to disastrous decisions, such as using dynamite to create a firebreak. This only resulted in more fires, covering 490 city blocks.  Nearly 25,000 city buildings and homes were destroyed, and the death toll was believed to be 3000, most due to the fires. San Francisco’s building codes are now among the most progressive in the world.

If you would like to learn more about the Great Fire of London, please watch the video below: