Book examines seven major urban fires that reshaped America

Copyright 2006 San Antonio Express-News
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San Antonio Express-News (Texas)

Seven Fires: The Urban Infernos That Reshaped America
By Peter Charles Hoffer

Urban fires are anything but new.

For centuries, cities were essentially man-made "forests" of easily combustible wooden buildings. Even with the evolution of building materials and modern construction techniques, business moguls have built increasingly sparkling, spectacular buildings, often skimping on materials that would make such structures truly fire-safe because of the expense.

Anybody who cringed in fear at the 1973 film "The Towering Inferno" might appreciate that, but historian Peter Charles Hoffer adds context to the theme in terms of the political and insurance implications of rebuilding after major fires and how certain fires affected local and sometimes national history.

It's far from dull history, too. Hoffer captures reader attention early with a quick and readable primer in the nature and characteristics of fire, how it can take on a life of its own and mutate in seconds from a contained mishap to a major catastrophe and how the fighting of fires has evolved over time.

There's no shortage of praise for fire fighters, either, especially in the case of Sept. 11, 2001, although the author pinpoints factors in judgment, strategy and equipment availability that could have mitigated the destruction and death toll in that and other fires.

But if urban fires are as inevitable as business leaders seem to assume, Hoffer points out that a large part of the reason for that is that urban structures are often built in the direct line of natural fire pathways.

One might differ with Hoffer's premise that all seven fires he reviews shaped America in any real way, since four aren't linked with subsequent events most Americans would find familiar and five are little known outside the cities where they occurred.

Of the seven, only the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the Detroit ghetto fire of 1967 and the destruction of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, would be familiar to many Americans today. The others studied include a 1760 fire in Boston, downtown business district fires in Pittsburgh in 1845 and Baltimore in 1904, and a 1991 wildfire in a wealthy suburb in Oakland Hills, Calif.

The Chicago fire spurred the development of modern skyscrapers. Hoffer also includes the 1873 Pullman labor strike and the 1886 Haymarket riots, which grew out of the depressed economy following the 1871 fire (Hoffer absolves Mrs. O'Leary and her cow of blame for the fire, although the O'Leary barn was its point of origin). The Detroit fire, which destroyed run-down ghetto properties rather than prime commercial real estate, was among the first obvious indications that the passage of landmark civil rights legislation didn't address the economic plight of the black poor.

Sept. 11, 2001, whose full effects on the country might not be understood for years to come, nevertheless demonstrated immediately that America's ability to cope with large-scale urban disasters and fire safety in its large-scale building projects is woefully inadequate.

Perhaps the book's biggest surprise, at least for aficionados of American colonial and revolutionary history, is Hoffer's account of how the 1760 Boston fire started the chain of events leading to the Revolution. Had Britain's Parliament taken notice of the devastation of Boston and tried to mitigate the plight of its destitute victims instead of imposing burdensome taxes, he contends that the Boston Tea Party and the subsequent political ferment in the Colonies might never have happened.

The Tea Party and much of the ferment were instigated by the Sons of Liberty, many of whom, interestingly enough, were none other than volunteer fire fighters.

An intriguing theme permeating Hoffer's accounts of all seven fires is that urban fires have long been viewed as inevitable and not entirely bad. Business tycoons haven't welcomed the huge cost of making buildings truly fire-safe, either. What they have welcomed is the periodic opportunity to clear out rental properties and build newer and more attractive buildings that would command higher rental income.

All but the Detroit fire spurred business and civic leaders to revitalize their cities, which benefited business significantly, but they did very little to help the common people who had lost everything in the fires and had no resources to aid their recovery.

In that sense all seven fires can be said to have a common history, and it's a decidedly checkered history.

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