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November 14, 2007

Of Fire, Fire, Fire I Sing…
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 11:21 AM * 43 comments

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.


(Also available in hardback.)

See also: Go Bags and Tips for an apocalypse.

(The title line on this post is the first line from “London Mourning in Ashes,” a ballad about the London Fire of 1666.)

Comments on Of Fire, Fire, Fire I Sing...:
#1 ::: John L ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2007, 11:37 AM:

Of all places, The Weather Channel is where I first heard of this disaster. It was on one of their "weather disasters" segments they run every few months, and said the Hinckley fire was one of the worst and least known in US history.

Basically, TWC said the long hot and dry summer turned the area around Hinckley into one big tinderbox, and once a small fire got started it soon turned into a firestorm that destroyed the town and killed over 400 people.

#2 ::: wired ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2007, 12:00 PM:

Hinkley has a totally cool museum on this. There's a replica of the station, and they put the museum inside that. The have items miraculously saved from the fire, stories and ledgers of people who made it through, and aid receipts for the help disbursed to the survivors. If you're in the Twin Cities, Hinkley is just over an hour up the road, and well worth the visit.

I didn't take pictures in the museum, but here are some of the memorial: http://www.flickr.com/photos/13571352@N04/tags/hinkley/
The mass-grave trenches are still visible.

#3 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2007, 01:31 PM:

Another good one, Jim!

I first heard of this fire through a song that Juanita sings about one of the engineers you mention above. I'll have to ask her for the title on that one....

(Juanita collects books on disasters -- is this a new one? If so, I'll alert Bruce, it would probably make a good Christmas present for her.)

#4 ::: Mary Frances ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2007, 01:35 PM:

Thanks, Jim--I love books like this. It can go on my shelf next to the book about the circus fire in Hartford CN and McCullough's book about the Johnstown Flood.

#5 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2007, 01:38 PM:

From here to the State Library website, where I learn there are two copies in the system and promptly request one. How the heck did I survive without an online library catalog?

Thanks, Jim.

#6 ::: eric ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2007, 02:40 PM:

Another dealing with similar subject matter is Norman Maclean's "Young Men and the Fire", about smokejumpers going in on the Mann Gulch Fire outside of Helena MT, and having it blow over and kill all but three of them.

#7 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2007, 02:40 PM:

This is a fairly new book. The hardcover came out from Lyons Press in May '06. The trade paperback (which is what I read) came out in August '07.

The same day, the same weather system, Brown points out, created other fires as far east as Pennsylvania. Other towns that were damaged or destroyed by fires included Park Falls and Fifield, Wisconsin, where my grandparents were living at the time, and where my mother would be born some ten years later.

#8 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2007, 02:45 PM:

Any bookshelf with books about great fires should have George R. Stewart's (yes, that George R. Stewart, who wrote Storm and Earth Abides) novel Fire. It is the story of the life and death of a California forest fire, and was first published in 1948.

#9 ::: TChem ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2007, 03:37 PM:

Mary Frances #4: What book was that about the Hartford Circus Fire? I'd be curious to read that sometime--my grandmother and her siblings were supposed to go to the circus that day, but the youngest came down with the flu. They didn't hear what happened until my grandmother came home early from work, shellshocked because she hadn't heard about the change of plans.

#10 ::: Lis Riba ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2007, 03:47 PM:

Having spent a portion of my childhood in Wisconsin, I was always fascinated by the Peshtigo Fire.

Happened the same night as the Chicago fire, and much more massive, but because it happened in the backwoods of Wisconsin, it never got the same attention.

1.5 million acres burned, deathtoll uncertain but in the thousands -- Wikipedia* calls it most deaths by fire in US history until 9/11.

But what grabs you most is the personal accounts.

I remember writing a paper on the subject for which I went to the state archives to read the old papers and anniversary interviews with the last survivors.

Human stories. I concur.
Too bad K-12 history education seems to have lost site of that fact in favor of testable facts, because the human stories are what make history so fascinating. [So saith someone who discovered a love for the subject within the last decade and marvels how schools made it so boring.]

#11 ::: Leva Cygnet ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2007, 03:56 PM:

James, if memory serves, that nationwide outbreak of fires was what spawned the forest service's decades-long attitude towards fires of surpressing 'em all.

Many of the fires that blew up over a few day's period were controlled burns set by farmers or Native Americans, for a variety of reasons. The national-level reaction was to start a campaign against ANY wildfires, putting out even "good" fires as a matter of course and not doing nearly enough controlled burning.

The end result has not been exactly good for long-term fire surpression.

(I have family in Payson, AZ, with a remote cabin on a ridge at the end of a dirt road, and I very well know the fear of smelling woodsmoke on a hot, dry, windy summer day. Or of seeing the pumper truck go roaring up the road, followed by the growl of airplanes overhead. This book would probably give me nightmares -- when Jim talks about bug-out bags, my first association with bugging out is the possibility of bugging out with a wildire at my heels.)

-- Leva

#12 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2007, 04:57 PM:

Lizzy L, if you liked those by Stewart, you might like his Ordeal by Hunger.

#13 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2007, 05:24 PM:

TChem (9): I'm not Mary Frances, but I'm guessing she means Circus Fire, by Stewart O'Nan. There's also a novel, Masters of Illusion, by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith, and a book of poems, Worlds Afire, by Paul B. Janeczko. (Only that last is still in print; try your local library for the others.)

#14 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2007, 05:38 PM:

Linkmeister, that one pushed too many of my buttons... But it's one hell of a book.

Donner, party of 2,...
Donner, party of 1...

/ducks

#15 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2007, 05:48 PM:

Lizzy L,

"Hello, my name is Hastings. I'll be your maitre d' this trip."

#16 ::: Mary Frances ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2007, 06:32 PM:

TChem @ 9 and Mary Aileen @ 13: Yes, it was Stewart O'Nan's Circus Fire that I was thinking of--thanks, Mary Aileen. I couldn't remember the author's name and didn't have time to look it up. I checked, and the book does seem to be still available in paperback, from Anchor (according to Amazon). Also on Amazon was one I seem to have missed--A Matter of Degree: The Hartford Circus Fire and the Mystery of Little Miss 1565, by Don Massey and Rick Davey; that one seems to be mostly about one of the more celebrated "never identified" victims of the fire, an eight-year-old girl. The O'Nan book is a fascinating read (though--warning--if I remember correctly it requires a fairly strong stomach); I'll have to check out the Massey and Davey myself.

Lis Riba @ 10: Did you know there was a book about the Peshtigo fire? I didn't, until I ran across it just now on Amazon--Firestorm at Peshtigo: A Town, Its People, and the Deadliest Fire in American History, by Denise Getz and William Lutz. Apparently there was a circus involved in that fire, too, in some way . . .

#17 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2007, 07:22 PM:

(I admit I'm fascinated by the "do a controlled burn and then step into the tiny firebreak you've made" strategy that saved the guy in the song, because it's the only time the phrase "fighting fire with fire" has made any sense to me.)

#18 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2007, 07:54 PM:

There's a great documentary on the Donner Party directed by Ric Burns (Ken's brother). Again, recommended.

#20 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2007, 08:54 PM:

*blinks* I would find the name O'nan a fairly memorable one, meself; but mebbe that's just me.


[shatner]… must … resist … jocularity [/shatner]

#21 ::: Catherine Winters ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2007, 09:26 PM:

I'm reminded (for obvious reasons) of this.

Hmm, telegraph dispatchers as heroic archetype?

#22 ::: Dori ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2007, 11:48 PM:

Sarah @ 17: are you thinking of Cold Missouri Waters? If so, it's about the 1949 Mann Gulch fire in Montana (the same one Eric @ 6 mentioned).

#23 ::: Rainflame ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2007, 11:55 PM:

Burning an Empire: The Study of American Forest Fires, by Stewart H. Holbrook, has a section on the Peshtigo fire as well as several other well-known fires.

#24 ::: Paul ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2007, 05:35 AM:

I was highly surprised that the Great Hinckley Fire didn't make the "Minnesota 150" list that the Minnesota Historical Society has compiled. It seems to have been nominated but didn't quite make the cut. Given some of the odder choices I saw at the exhibit that DID get accepted, it baffles me.

http://www.mnhs.org/exhibits/mn150/"

#25 ::: Alex ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2007, 09:55 AM:

And there was me thinking the world's first firestorm occurred in the Surrey Docks, Rotherhithe, London in August 1940.

Presumably that should be "world's first artificial firestorm."

#26 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2007, 03:52 PM:

Pictures of a fire whirlwind breaking off from the Fletcher Fire of 2007. "[The analyst] estimated the winds to be Category 2 on the Fujita Scale."

#27 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2007, 05:45 PM:

The iron fence around the Hinckley cemetery, seen in Wired's photos (#2 above), was put up by John Currie, the town's druggist, one of the firestorm's survivors. He'd made it out of town on the Best/Barry train.

#28 ::: oldnumberseven ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2007, 03:31 AM:

Just wanted to second Eric's comment above about 'Young Men and Fire.' It is a very good book. One thing I have always liked about Maclean was his descriptions, well of almost anything, but the land especially.

#29 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2007, 10:20 AM:

Dan Brown has written to me to say that he's working on a book about the Donner Party.

Here's an op/ed he wrote about the recent California wildfires (reprinted numerous places).

#30 ::: Lisa Padol ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2007, 10:50 AM:

Here's a third for _Young Men and Fire_, though I still can't quite read a contour map well, and I am too much a provincial city girl to grok, well, country.

I learned about the Mann Gulch fire from Bill Gawne, when he sang "Cold Missouri Waters", and when I asked about it, he recommended the book.

Songs are often stories too. (Okay, that's preaching to the choir.) I learned about the men rowing from Athens to Lesbos to save 9,000 lives when Bill sang Zeke Hoskin's song "Mytilene's Reprieve", and Bill referred me to Herodotus.

#31 ::: oldnumberseven ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2007, 12:12 PM:

Lisa Padol,

If you like Herodotus, you might also check out a book called the White Goddess by Robert Graves. The two books supplemented one another in my sparse education of the ancient world. Everything I ever got, I learned out of books.

#32 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2007, 12:28 PM:

Be aware that The White Goddess is Robert Graves doing poetic theory. As a work of sober history ... it isn't.

#33 ::: oldnumberseven ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2007, 01:04 PM:

James D. Macdonald,

You don't think Graves was sober?

Just kidding. When I read the book I can see it, though, if that makes any sense, not as much as Herodotus or Plutarch, and it is all speculation on Graves' part.

#34 ::: Jan Vaněk jr. ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2007, 11:32 AM:

James D. Macdonald #29: You had me scared there; I thought it was the other (or the first?) Dan Brown.

#35 ::: MJB ::: (view all by) ::: November 20, 2007, 02:56 PM:

"A fire-safety engineer recently remarked that the Life Safety Code should be treated as a sacred text, since every paragraph in it required the sacrifice of one or more human lives."

page 46, "Asbestos and Fire: Technological Tradeoffs and the Body at Risk" by Rachel Maines

#36 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2007, 08:54 AM:

I want to belatedly note that I just finished Under a Flaming Sky, and it's every bit as good as Jim says it is.

Teresa and I had pretty much the same experience: once we started it, we were unable to even think of reading anything else. Absolutely fascinating.

#38 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2008, 06:01 PM:

A backdraft.

Another backdraft. (Looks like a training situation.)

Yet another backdraft.

A flashover. (Training situation.)

#39 ::: Xopher sees cryptic spam ::: (view all by) ::: July 13, 2009, 01:32 PM:

As in, WTF?

#40 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: July 13, 2009, 01:44 PM:

I think they're testing our defenses; there's no sensible payload here.

In other words, if we don't clean it up, they know the threads are undefended, and the next lot will be the bad stuff.

#43 ::: Torrilin ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2011, 01:28 PM:

Just spent the morning talking a friend into evacuating from the Las Conchas fire. He's off work due to the fire threatening the office. He's under a voluntary evac order. And the NOAA report is not good.

Even so, it took about 4 hours for him to be ready to go.

I think it's time to double-check the family go-bags.

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