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Goodness, Gracious, Great Balls o’ Fire!
Historic Fires

Goodness, Gracious, Great Balls o’ Fire!
  • The Place of the 1917 Explosion in Halif... (by )
  • When London burned : a story of Restorat... (by )
  • A Story of the Chicago Fire (by )
  • The story of the great fire, Boston, Nov... (by )
  • By Earthquake and Fire : An Authentic Hi... (by )
  • De Antiquis Legibus Liber : Cronica Maio... (by )
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Jerry Lee Lewis’ rollicking tune notwithstanding, fire shapes human history. Having learned to create and control fire over 400,000 years ago, humankind embarked upon the painstaking process of building civilizations and all the wonders and ills that attend human gatherings. We still use fire to distill water, melt and solder metals, produce steam to run turbines for electricity, incinerate trash, and heat our homes.

Fire is unpredictable, both master and slave to human demand. Nature, however, has played with fire for longer than humankind: Discover Magazine noted in its October 7, 2011, issue that “A coal seam about 140 miles north of Sydney, Australia, has been burning by some estimates for 500,000 years.” When fire burns out of control, the event inspires terror and awe and it changes lives for a long, long time. Following are some of the most memorable fires in history.

The Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD: Portrayed in the 1951 Hollywood film Quo Vadis as mad Emperor Nero played his violin to serenade the destruction of his capital city, this immense fire consumed 10 of the city’s 14 districts, killing most of the populace. Scholars consider secondhand accounts to be the most accurate in describing the fire.

The Great Fire of Southwark in 1212: Not as well remembered as the Great London Fire in 1666, this urban disaster on the River Thames in the heart of old London burned the borough of Southwark and killed many of its 3,000 victims trapped on the London Bridge. The earliest account of the fire comes from the Liber de Antiquis Legibus of 1274, translated by Thomas Stapleton in 1846.

The Great Fire of London in 1666: History considers this catastrophe as both tragedy and miracle. The cleansing fire destroyed 80 percent of the city and barbequed most of the rats and fleas that spread the bubonic plague. Read When London Burned: A Story of Restoration Times and the Great Fire by G. A. Henty for a deeper understanding of the fire.

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871: Older adults may remember campfire songs about Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicking over a lantern, which reputedly resulted in a fire that killed 300 people and destroyed more than 17,000 buildings across 2,000 acres within three days. Read an account of the Chicago Fire in A Story of the Chicago Fire by David Swing.
The Great Fire at Boston in 1872: Thousands of Bostonians lost their jobs and fire insurance companies went bankrupt when a fire consumed 65 acres of downtown Boston turned the business district of the city into charred ruins. Although only 20 people perished in the fire, the city and its businessmen lost 776 buildings. Charles Carleton Coffin published a contemporary account of the disaster in The Story of the Great Fire, Boston, November 9-10, 1872.

The Peshtigo Firestorm of 1871: Gale force winds blew burning embers from the Great Chicago Fire into Michigan where they ignited to cause a wildfire that spread across the state into neighboring Wisconsin. Although the loss of human lives did not match that of earlier conflagrations, the spread of the fire eclipsed all recorded others before it: 250,000 square acres burned.

The San Francisco Fire of 1906: An earthquake on April 18, 1906, toppled over lamps, candles, and wood or coal burning ovens, sparking an urban conflagration that lasted three days and killed 3,000 people. City authorities contained the fire by using dynamite to destroy entire blocks of buildings, causing even further destruction while halting the fire’s spread. Read eye witness accounts in By Earthquake and Fire: An Authentic History of the San Francisco Calamity Told by Eye Witnesses with Nearly 100 Illustrations by Lindley Smith.
The Halifax Explosion in 1917: When the cargo ship Mont-Blanc, loaded with ammunition bound for Europe, collided with a Norwegian freighter in the Halifax harbor in Nova Scotia, the press squelched the news. The powerful explosion detonated with a force of three kilotons of TNT and caused a tidal wave within the harbor itself. Combined with a blizzard that struck the following day, the death toll exceeded 2,000 people.

The Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923: Lunchtime cookfires took advantage of a massive earthquake to burn down a city. Toppled cooking fires ignited blazes throughout Tokyo, high winds fanned the flames, and a tsunami caused by the earthquake compounded the damage. Death toll estimates exceed 142,000 lives with 570,000 homes destroyed and 1.9 million people left homeless.

The Texas City Disaster in 1947: A docked freighter carrying 2,300 tones of ammonium nitrate fertilizer exploded, leveling over 1,000 buildings and killing approximately 600 people. It started a chain reaction in the industrial area in the dockyard which spread to engulf the surrounding city.

The Yellowstone Fires of 1988: More than 9,000 firefighters, assisted by helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, battled the flames of this immense wildfire the consumed in 36 percent of Yellowstone National Park. The firefighting effort cost $120 million (not adjusted for inflation).

For a more complete list of the world’s great fires, consult the World Heritage Encyclopedia.

By Karen M. Smith

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