I’ve just read a marvelous book, Under A Flaming Sky, by Daniel James Brown.
The subtitle is “The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894.” On Saturday, September 1st, 1894, the nineteen-man fire department of Hinckley, Minnesota, faced a wall of flame five miles wide by two hundred feet high, backed by hundred-knot winds, advancing toward them twice as fast as a man can run. Bubbles and sheets of hot gas floated up and ahead of the fire front to explode on touching oxygen, thousands of feet in the air.
Mass fires also generate enormous winds, often of hurricane velocity. Sometimes these winds begin to rotate and become cyclonic, creating fire vortices—tornadoes of fire that may advance well ahead of the main flaming front. Because of the tremendous updraft in their convection columns, mass fires typically pick up thousands of flaming and glowing firebrands—some as large as burning logs. They may carry those as much as 18,000 feet into the air before throwing them miles ahead of their fronts, spawning spot fires wherever the firebrands land in fuel. And because mass fires consume their fuel so rapidly, they often exhaust all the available oxygen in the air before they have finished burning all the carbon and volatile gases that they have released from their fuels. As a result, they produce vast clouds of black smoke, black because it’s carrying a heavy load of unburned carbon. As this superheated black smoke rises, it eventually encounters enough oxygen to allow combustion to resume, and flames arc in sheets across the sky. To people on the ground it appears that the sky itself is on fire. Most spectacularly of all, glowing bubbles of the gases released by fire—bubbles that may be as big as a car or even a house—may float some distance ahead of the fire like gigantic balloons dancing in the sky before igniting suddenly over the heads of horrified onlookers.
The fire department had one steam-fired pump with 2,000 feet of hose, and a well for their water supply. They were, the entire town was, in a word, screwed.
Brown has done a lovely job of pulling together contemporary accounts, building a coherent narrative, and setting it in the social conditions of the time. (Scandinavian immigrants, the Pullman strike just ended, the lumber and railroad barons, company towns.) As the disaster develops he goes farther afield to other great fires, forest and otherwise (Peshtigo, Sundance, The Coconut Grove), fire science, forest management, burn physiology, and crowd behavior.
Heroic engineers stand by their throttles, waiting until Almost Too Late in order to load as many people as possible into their cars, as the paint blisters from their engines. Plucky telegraph operators stand by their keys. It’s all good stuff.
An ad hoc combined freight/passenger train with a locomotive coupled to each end is standing on the tracks:
Crouching in the doorway of his cab, trying to keep out of the worst of the heat, and calculating the odds, [engineer] Bill Best watched the people streaming toward him from the village. He hopped down from the cab and started to jog the length of the train to talk to [conductor Harry] Powers about how long they should stay, but [engineer Ed] Barry, in his cab at the far end, suddenly gave two sharp whistles—the signal to pull out. The train slowly began to back up. Best raced back to his cab, climbed in, and set the air brakes so the train could go nowhere. Again Barry sounded two whistles, but Best continued to stare out across the town. Barry’s conductor, W. D. Campbell, ran the length of the train and bellowed up to Best in his cab, “Barry will cut off his engine and pull out!” Best looked at him and said, “I guess not.” Again two whistles. Men he did not know jumped up onto the locomotive and shouted at Best, “Back up! Back up, or we’ll all be burned!” Best leaned out of the cab and said, “Boys, don’t get excited. We’re all right yet.” But even as he spoke he could see people in the village dropping in the streets, crumpling like rag dolls as waves of superheated air caught up with them. A few were already engulfed in flames, staggering, falling, rising again, taking a few more steps and falling again, flailing their flame-enshrouded limbs on the ground. Best’s brakeman, O. L. Beach, climbed into the cab and shouted, “Barry says to let the brakes loose!” But looking down the line Best could see both Powers and Campbell were still helping people up into the boxcars. Again two whistles. Best turned to George Ford, his fireman, and said, as if astonished, “Good God, George! Will I sacrifice the train at last?” Finally, Best climbed down to the bottom step of the locomotive one more time and peered down the length of the train. Then he resumed his seat in the cab and released the air brakes, and the train started to back out of town slowly, lumbering toward Grindstone Bridge.
Then the fire is over, and we move on to the rescue and recovery operations, and the medical treatment of burns (past and present), with notes on PTSD (not understood at all at the time). The dead are buried in four long trenches in the town cemetery.
It doesn’t wrap up neatly—such things never do—the town of Hinckley is still there but never fully recovered. For years afterward skeletons turned up in the woods—hunters, trappers, lumberjacks, itinerants, Native Americans. Eventually the last survivors died of old age.
Human stories. We’re defined by story. To understand humanity, find stories of humans in extreme circumstances.
[Railroad porter John] Blair himself said little that evening, but when asked earlier how he had remained so calm when others were so panicked, he had said, “I just resolved I would not lose my head, and if I had to die, I would do it without making a fool of myself.”
Good book. I recommend it.
(The title line on this post is the first line from “London Mourning in Ashes,” a ballad about the London Fire of 1666.)