It seemed like wildfires burned all across the American West this summer, each one worse than the other. A fire in Montana burned so long and so intensely that many nearby towns experience perpetual nightfall for days. Amazingly, the fires of 2017 stripped an area as big as the state of Maryland. For the European audience, that equated to an area about the size of Belgium or Albania. All reduced to ashes.
Twelve Mile Circle featured a number of natural disasters previously (e.g., hurricanes, floods) so why not fire? I considered pinpointing the largest fires in recorded history. However I wanted something I could mark distinctly on my index map. Maybe I could shift my attention to famous city fires instead.
First I had to get this out of my system:
You know you wanted to see it. Or maybe that was just me. Fortunately it lasts only eight seconds.
Great Fire of London
The Monument. Photo by Gabrielle Ludlow on Flickr (cc)
The Great Fire of London in 1666 may be the most well-known. It began in the bakery of Thomas Farriner/Farynor late at night. First it spread west and then north as winds shifted. Nearly all of the original medieval part of the city went up in flames. Firefighting techniques barely existed at the time and couldn’t contain it. The main defense involved fire breaks, literally removing anything combustible before flames arrived. However, officials didn’t move quickly enough to create breaks so the fire spread far-and-wide. Reputedly very few people died even though the fire covered a sizable portion of central London. That might have been because the city government didn’t keep good records of the poor and destitute. They may have simply been incinerated. The true death toll will never be known.
Anyone who studied English History of this time period probably remembered hearing about the fire in the diary of Samuel Pepys.
So I made myself ready presently, and walked to the Tower, and there got up upon one of the high places, Sir J. Robinson’s little son going up with me; and there I did see the houses at that end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side the end of the bridge…
The fire left an indelible impression. Five years later the city commissioned construction of a large Doric column near the site where the fire began on Pudding Lane. Christopher Wren designed the monument while he did the same for the reconstruction of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The column rose 62 metres (202 feet) upon completion and it still stands. Visitors can climb to the top of the Great Fire of London Monument for panoramic views of the city. (map)
Great Chicago Fire
Impact vs Chicago Fire. Photo by abdallahh on Flickr (cc)
The most famous fire in the United States might be the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. According to popular legend — disproved long ago — the fire began when Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lamp. The disaster did indeed start near the O’Leary family’s barn on an alley behind DeKoven Street (map). However, nobody knew the true cause. The story of a clumsy cow sold a lot of newspapers so it stuck.
The fire created utter devastation in downtown Chicago, consuming more than three square miles of densely-populated neighborhoods. By the end, more than a hundred thousand people lost their homes and three hundred people lost their lives. The city’s business district laid in ruins. It might have been worse except for rain on the third day. The fire finally began to burn out as it approached more sparsely-settled areas farther away from the downtown core.
As in London, the people of Chicago created a lasting memorial near the site where the fire began. The Chicago remembrance took a much more practical turn. The city constructed a training facility for the Chicago Fire Academy on the site. Firefighters now learn how to combat blazes at the place where the city’s most horrific conflagration began.
Memories of the disaster remained strong even more than a century later. The local Major League Soccer team named itself the Chicago Fire.
Great Fire of Meireki
Meireki fire via Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain
I’d never heard of the Great Fire of Meireki before I started researching this article although it certainly deserved a mention. Meireki referred to the Japanese imperial era when the fire took place, specifically its third year, 1657. That put it just a few years before the Great Fire of London. This one also brought a capital to its knees, the city of Edo, now known as Tokyo. Its legendary origin put the Chicago story to shame. Supposedly the blaze began when a priest attempted to burn a cursed kimono. Actually, nobody knew how it started although the spot traced to somewhere within the Hongo district (map).
Edo suffered through an extended drought leading up to the fire, leaving buildings tinderbox dry. Wooden homes clustered tightly along narrow streets became the perfect fuel. High winds that day fanned flames widely throughout the city. Up to seventy percent of the Edo burned before the fire finally subsided. Perhaps a hundred thousand people died.