A history of wartime firefighting – and what firefighters might face in the future

Is it time to prepare U.S. firefighters to battle mass fire events similar to those witnessed during World War II?


During the last few months, we have watched the valiant efforts of our Ukrainian brother and sister firefighters as they battle fires ignited by artillery, rockets and bombs used to level their cities and towns. These videos also show the firefighters conducting rescue and recovery efforts in collapsed buildings; constructing make-shift bridges to help citizens ford a river to safety; and providing citizens the best available medical care given the resources at hand.

Ukrainian firefighters extinguish a blaze at a warehouse after a bombing in Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, March 17, 2022.
Ukrainian firefighters extinguish a blaze at a warehouse after a bombing in Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, March 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

This is certainly not the first time in recent history that firefighters worked in the middle of a war zone. There have been many firefighting efforts in the 20th and 21st centuries worth acknowledging and revisiting. Let’s also consider what firefighters might face in the future, particularly in a worst-case scenario – if a country deployed nuclear weapons in a conflict.

Please note that I approach this topic not only as a firefighter and chief officer, but also from my experience as an Air Force Intelligence officer who helped track potential targets in then-hostile countries as part our nation’s deterrence policy.

Fire as a weapon

People have used fire against each other in many forms throughout recorded history. In fact, fire as a weapon has existed since the first tribes decided to make war on each other, using fire to burn the huts, crops and livestock of their enemies.

Introducing “firestorm”: In more recent times, however, it was World War II that added the term “firestorm” to our vocabulary. As a post-war baby boomer, I saw the images of major cities in Europe – London, Hamburg and Dresden, to name a few – that had entire neighborhoods reduced to fiery rubble by incendiary bombs. These fires were so intense that they created their own internal winds that further fed the fires – the firestorm. Against this backdrop were images of firefighters battling against the odds to control these fires that not only destroyed their cities but also killed other firefighters and tens of thousands of residents.

During World War II, major cities in Europe, including Dresden, Germany, had entire neighborhoods reduced to fiery rubble by incendiary bombs. These fires were so intense that they created their own internal winds that further fed the fires – the firestorm.
During World War II, major cities in Europe, including Dresden, Germany, had entire neighborhoods reduced to fiery rubble by incendiary bombs. These fires were so intense that they created their own internal winds that further fed the fires – the firestorm. (Photo/Wikimedia Commons/Cassowary Colorizations)

Mass fire overwhelms forces: In the Pacific, the United States dropped two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. These bombs, with yields of 21 kilotons and 15 kilotons (the equivalent of 42 million pounds and 30 million pounds of TNT, respectively), created a new and different phenomenon later termed “mass fire.” This term referred to the creation of a single fire across the extremely large area beyond just that of the initial detonation blast damage. “Mass fire” was not the previously seen rapid spread of fires from neighborhood to neighborhood, as was the case with the use of incendiary bombs. The use of atomic weapons with the resultant mass fire completely overwhelmed firefighting efforts. It also introduced the perils of atomic radiation on many of the survivors.

During World War II, the United States dropped two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima (pictured). These bombs created a new and different phenomenon later termed “mass fire” – the creation of a single fire across the extremely large area beyond just that of the initial detonation blast damage.
During World War II, the United States dropped two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima (pictured). These bombs created a new and different phenomenon later termed “mass fire” – the creation of a single fire across the extremely large area beyond just that of the initial detonation blast damage. (Photo/Getty Images)

From the Soviet Union to Russia: Since that time, the use of even more powerful nuclear weapons has been threatened twice against the United States. The first by the former Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1961. Most recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a similar threat during the current Ukrainian War, as a warning of what might occur if NATO intervenes in the war.

What would the use of such a weapon, along with certain retaliation, do to any chance of controlling the resultant fires by firefighters?

Lynn Eden’s “Whole World on Fire” was first published in 2004.
Lynn Eden’s “Whole World on Fire” was first published in 2004. (Photo/Amazon)

In her book, “Whole World on Fire,” first published in 2004, author Lynn Eden – the associate director for research/senior research scholar at the Center for International Security and Cooperation, Institute for International Studies, at Stanford University – chronicled the study of the mass fire damage phenomenon by both physicists and fire engineers starting in the 1950s through the 1990s. Their efforts were to try to quantify the extent of damage that would result from the much higher-yielding hydrogen or nuclear bombs, tested with yields up to 55 megatons or the equivalent of 110 trillion pounds of TNT. (The former Soviet Union tested such a weapon on Oct. 30, 1961, referred to as the “Tsar Bomba” or roughly translated as the King of Bombs.)

By comparison, one of the largest tests conducted by the United States was on Nov. 1, 1952, at the Island of Eniwetok in the Pacific when a 10.2 megaton (20 trillion pounds of TNT, roughly 20% of the later Soviet test) nuclear bomb was tested. The following excerpts are from the testimony of a witness stationed 35 miles from ground zero. “First, a brilliant light and heat felt immediately … the shock wave and sound arrived two and a half minutes after detonation.”

Another observer of this same test wrote this: “A flash brighter than the sun … with heat like a momentary touch of a hot iron … You would swear the whole world was on fire.”

Over the years, international agreements have been signed in the attempts to prevent such massive destruction. The original Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) in 1969, and 1979 SALT II, were later superseded by the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which attempted to limit the number of stockpiled nuclear weapons. An extension of the START treaty, called the New START, extends the agreement until February 2026. (Note: SALT and START applies to only two countries – Soviet Union/Russia and the United States.)

President Carter and Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev sign the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT II) treaty in Washington, D.C., on June 16, 1979.
President Carter and Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev sign the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT II) treaty in Washington, D.C., on June 16, 1979. (Photo/CSIS Flickr)

While START is still in force between the U.S. and Russia, there are currently 10 countries that have or are able to acquire nuclear weapons.

Back to Ukraine

Now let’s connect this to Ukraine with two interesting facts:

1. Non-nuclear country: With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine became an independent country. Ukraine had the third-largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in its possession but relinquished these weapons to the Russian Federation. The weapons then became part of Russia’s reduction obligation under both the SALT and START treaties.

2. Chernobyl disaster: Ukrainians are very familiar with the effects of nuclear radiation. Disaster struck that country in 1986, when a massive leak of radiation occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. The official record counts fewer than 100 deaths as a result of the reactor meltdown. However, in 1988, through our department’s medical director, I met five Ukrainian firefighters and their physician when they came to the University of Cincinnati’s Cancer Research Center to seek treatment. The physician told me that hundreds of firefighters and military personnel sent to the scene at Chernobyl had died. They had been rotated through the danger zones, spending about a minute at a time in the hot zone, trying to contain the damaged reactor. The increased radiation from this one damaged reactor spread over an 18-mile radius.

The ruined 4 reactor of Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.
The ruined 4 reactor of Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. (Photo/Getty Images)

I am sure that, like those firefighters and others who worked for months at Ground Zero and the Pentagon after 9/11, the firefighters who fought at Chernobyl face an increased rate of cancer due to the continued exposure to toxic chemicals – and the death toll is much larger than officially reported.

Russians attacked the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in February.

Preparing for the unthinkable

A discussion in “Whole World on Fire” centers on a now declassified “Five City Study” started in the mid-1960s and extended in various forms for several decades. The study considered various hypothetical nuclear attacks on five cities – Providence, Detroit, New Orleans, Albuquerque and San Jose. The cities were chosen, in part, for having “average” large city populations, but varied in such regard as their height above sea level, topography, soil, climate, rain fall, relative humidity and other factors. The scenarios run over the years to determine the potential fire damage from the mass fire phenonium remained inconclusive.

The inability to quantify the extent of mass fire damage appears to be the reason why both Russia and United States rely on the blast damage of a nuclear device alone for their bomb damage assessments, without consideration of the potentially equal destruction from expanding fire damage. This may be one reason why fires and their intensity from a nuclear attack have not been given equal consideration, especially within the area of homeland security, to prepare the U.S. fire service for the possibility of mass fire events.

By contrast, according to the book, both our NATO allies Britain and France take into consideration the potential for fire damage as well as blast damage from their arsenal of nuclear weapons. This may be due to separate studies done by the British, similar to our “Five City Study,” or from their experience during WWII in dealing with the firestorms experienced from the bombings in their own major cities.

So, where does this leave the fire service in the United States? How should we address this potential issue?

Short of increased funding, one idea might be to seek training from a source available at the state level in most National Guard Civil Support Teams (CST). These units are experts in Chemical, Biological, Radiation, Nuclear and high-yield Explosives (CBRNE) disasters. Following 9/11, these units provided training to local fire departments, and may be our best source of training in the future. This training should be considered by metropolitan and suburban departments alike, simply because the resultant damage may decimate the larger cities’ ability to handle the fires, leaving the surrounding departments to try to control the fires from the peripheral areas inward.

National Guard Civil Support Team (CST) units are experts in CBRNE disasters.
National Guard Civil Support Team (CST) units are experts in CBRNE disasters. (Photo/National Guard)

If nothing else, the threat of a nuclear attack expressed by the current Russian president, much like the threats issued by Nikita Khrushchev during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, should be a wake-up call to the fire service that international tensions may require additional preparations at home.

Stay safe.

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