San Francisco commemorates 1906 fire, recalls lessons learned

FireRescue1 News Editor

San Francisco’s fire community and thousands of revelers gathered before dawn on April 18 to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fire that destroyed much of the city.

The commemoration culminated with a two-hour parade through the city, from the Civic Center to the foot of Market Street at Justin Herman Plaza. Tens of thousands of people, including 12 survivors and much of the San Francisco Fire Department, were on hand to remember those who lost their lives and celebrate the rebuilding of their city.

As bells rang out from the Ferry Building, which survived the 1906 fire, firefighters were praised for their efforts in battling the mammoth blaze under extreme duress.

“Firefighters responded with heroism without parallel,” Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi said. “As challenges grew, so did the hardships they endured. To make matters worse, half the firefighters lost their own homes, yet not one abandoned his post.”

Pelosi used the ceremony as an opportunity to not only recognize century-old exploits, but call attention to current issues affecting first responders.

“We need to stand with our first responders, not just on days of celebration like this, but on every day,” Pelosi said. On the first day of Congress in 2007, she plans to pursue interoperability solutions for first responders nationwide, a key recommendation of the Sept. 11 Commission, she said.

Calif. Senator Barbara Boxer echoed Pelosi’s sentiments.

“If we can’t talk to each other during an emergency, we can’t do our job,” she said.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom urged residents to do more to prepare for the next inevitable disaster.

“Less than 10 percent of us in this city have disaster plans (or kits) in our homes,” he said, asking everyone to “build on this remarkable foundation of faith and hard work.”

Newsom concluded with praise for the city’s firefighters, their agility in responding to unique disasters and long tradition of heroism in the face of incomprehensible disaster. His comments prompted Lt. John Hanley, president of San Francisco Firefighters Union Local 798, to quip, “I hope you remember that next year when we’re in contract negotiations.”

Several thousand people gather in San Francisco's financial district around 5:12 a.m. to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake on Tuesday. The magnitude-7.8 earthquake struck at 5:12 a.m. on April 18, 1906. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

Devastation leads to change, innovation

Historians suggest that San Francisco suffered the largest firestorm in the Western world since the fire in Rome in 64 A.D. The total destruction was estimated at $400 million, the equivalent of the United States federal budget in 1906.

Although some city officials admit the chaos and destruction that followed could happen again, San Francisco fire officials say the department has “benefited from tragic events” and that redundant water sources would prevent similar fast-spreading fires.

Some of those sources are the result of planning by Fire Chief Dennis Sullivan, who envisioned the plan before he died from injuries suffered in the earthquake at the firehouse, which doubled as his residence.

In 1907, San Francisco voters passed a $5 million bond to pay for Sullivan’s plan. The plan included the development and purchase of fireboats, massive storage tanks and a 10.5 million gallon tank on top of Twin Peaks. Sullivan’s greatest vision, the Auxiliary Water Supply System, was one of the most innovative ideas ever enacted in the fire service at that point. The high-pressure underground water supply system, which was finished in 1912, was unlike anything in the world.

Nearly 80 years later, Fire Chief Frank Blackburn noticed a flaw in Sullivan’s plan. An engineer, like Sullivan, Blackburn recognized that San Francisco needed a portable, aboveground and flexible system that could be fed by fireboats.

In 1986, he invented the Portable Water Supply System, comprised of portable five-inch hydrants that any fire engine can carry to any place in the city and connect to any source of water. Fireboats can pump water through a five-inch hose to the hydrants, supplying water from the San Francisco Bay to engines anywhere in the city. Like the AWSS, the PWSS was the first of its kind.

The plan required the support of then-mayor Dianne Feinstein and backing from the city’s residents and their wallets. A $50 million bond — the biggest in city history — was approved in 1987 by the widest margin ever.

The Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street is illuminated in colored lights at sunrise to mark the 100th anniversary of the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco Tuesday (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

The plan was completed just in time.

San Francisco was hit by the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989, which killed 60 and injured more than 4,000 people as buildings were crushed and split-level highways and bridges buckled. It provided a wake-up call for those who thought the errors that led to the devastation in 1906 were part of the past.

As has been the case in many large-scale emergency situations, the emergency communications system proved inadequate. Firefighters working in the Marina District battling blazes that broke out in the earthquake’s aftermath didn’t know what was going on in the rest of the city. They didn’t find out about the downed bridges and buildings until much later.

The AWSS was down immediately after the quake, prompting firefighters on the ground to request the PWSS. Five million gallons of salt water was pumped onto fires in the Marina District for more than 15 hours. Thanks to Blackburn’s plan, firefighters kept the fires from spreading further into the city.

One major factor highlighted by the Loma Prieta earthquake was the local community’s desire to assist in disaster recovery. San Francisco officials have since tried to capitalize on that desire as they continue to look for innovative plans that will help limit the impact of the next disaster.

The San Francisco Office of Emergency Services has set up a Web site,, to help people make preparations and encourage them to volunteer for neighborhood corps that would help first responders in the event of a disaster.

Since the early ‘90s, nearly 15,000 residents have joined the fire department’s Network Emergency Response Team program, which teaches earthquake preparedness and medical care during a disaster.

Other improvements include upgrades to the AWSS and PWSS and mutual aid agreements that have been formed with the police department and other emergency response teams throughout the state. Earlier this month, the city unveiled a new potable water hydrant program that includes 60 specially-marked hydrants throughout the city that can serve as drinking water sources following a disaster.

While San Francisco has much ground to cover before it is ideally prepared for another disaster, last week’s centennial celebration provided evidence that the city has at least opened a productive dialogue. “Nothing has changed since 1906 as far as (firefighters’) commitment to protecting the community,” Congressman Tom Lantos said at the celebration, adding a note of caution. “Constancy is good, but change is better.”

For more information on Mayor Newsom’s disaster planning goals, visit:

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