Fanning the flames

Fanning the flames

28 May 2006

published by

By Stephen J. Pyne

Seven Fires The Urban Infernos That Reshaped America Peter Charles Hoffer PublicAffairs: 460 pp., $27.50

“SEVEN Fires” has as its authorial ignition source the burning of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, but its intellectual fuel was mustered earlier, from historian Peter Charles Hoffer’s childhood memories of firefighters in Brooklyn and his career as a historian of urban America. The events of Sept. 11 brought them together, one reinforcing a sense of the firefighter as a kind of civic hero (“first in, last out”), the other scrutinizing the dreary chronicle of catastrophic urban conflagrations. The trade center was not America’s first such experience, Hoffer points out. “Cities such as Boston, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit, and Oakland had all confronted enormous losses and not succumbed. Why should Gotham be different?”

Each of the seven fires here strikes at a different historical moment and illuminates a different set of circumstances. The Boston fire of 1760 immolated a Colonial city of wood and helped kindle unrest that fed into political revolution. The Pittsburgh fire of 1845 burned a city that was itself based on burning, a rough frontier town of the Industrial Revolution. The Chicago fire of 1871 leveled the grand metropolis of the Midwest and gave rise to a Modernist revolution in architecture. The Baltimore fire of 1904 closed out an era when a single flame could spread through an entire city and led to a sequence of urban regrowth that carried the metropolis through much of the 20th century. Thereafter, the conflagrations assume a different cast. The Detroit fires of 1967 created a permanent racial divide and replaced ashes with rust as the city slid into decay. The 1991 fire in the Oakland hills was a wildland fire in a city, an emblem of the new exurban frontier that is recolonizing rural America and turning sprawl’s fringe into a flaming front. The 2001 New York holocaust blasted a city within a city; it was a fire rendered large not by the area consumed but by the density of human habitation itdestroyed.

There are constants among this litany. All seven fires shaped how urban America evolved. Each was paradoxical, as fire itself is — both ruinous and rejuvenating. The aftershocks have lasted, in most cases, as urban scar tissue, shaping patterns of development that can still be seen today. What happened after the smoke died away depended largely on how the burn sat within the landscape of American capitalism. If wealth was lost, then the rich and powerful worked strenuously to rebuild. If the poor or the marginal suffered, capital moved elsewhere. These are constants of American society and politics; the deeper constant is that the very factors that make cities work also make them vulnerable to fire. “The lesson … is that city fire is inevitable,” Hoffer writes.”[I]t can be contained, fought, and controlled, but not eliminated.”Each account follows a rough formula. A prologue describes the city and its historic sensitivity to burning. A section then tracks the fire — its preliminaries, its rush and rage, its aftermath. A third section elaborates on what the fire means: how it was seen at the time, how it might profitably be viewed today. In less skilled hands, such a formula might have become mechanical, tiresome, didactic. But the author is committed to “sensory history” and knows that “no natural or man-made event so overwhelms the senses as fire.” The narrative is a curry of detail. The text moves with the varied pace of fire itself — sometimes smoldering, sometimes flaring, sometimes in full-throated roar. The formula becomes a structural rhythm, like the buried cadence of a poem.

Yet Hoffer intends more than a rattling good disaster yarn. This is at heart an academic jeremiad. Its physical landscape morphs into a moral one. It appeals to universals: “For certain things about cities and city life, like those about fire and firefighting, do not change.” It depicts fires that “tested our will,” that inspired the best and worst in people, that offered a “message of hope.” It honors its good guys — firefighters. It loathes its bad guys — the money men, whether rich, sleazy Realtors or corrupt public officials. The fires are “warnings.” History teaches “lessons.” Not least, “the next fire is already upon us.” Revealingly, out of all the versions of the Promethean myth, Hoffer selects the one that portrays the young Titan as plotting revenge against the Olympians, with stolen fire in the hands of humanity a form of nemesis and retribution.

This vision merges seamlessly into the standard narrative of urban fire, which is a story of people living in an environment of their own making. Urban wildfires happen because someone misbehaves — someone is ignorant, someone is suborned, someone is lazy, greedy, proud, clumsy. In principle, there is almost no reason, in a setting wholly of human artifice, for wildfire to occur. It happens for the same reason other foul deeds do. Someone fails. In such a setting, the firefighter, an almost monastic breed, intervenes to set matters right again. This is a morality tale embedded in society, not in fire; wildland firefighting is a very different matter.

“Seven Fires” is a densely textured rendering of the standard urban fire text. Fire buffs, structural firefighters, urban historians will all recognize its fundamentals, which are as basic to urban fire services as the fire triangle is to combustion science. They will recognize, too, that this is an exceptionally enriched and informed version, far beyond the stock fare of fancy apparatus and leather-lung rescue companies.

Fire is about context, for it is not a substance but a reaction that synthesizes its surroundings. Understand that context and you understand fire. Control that context and you control fire. Here, fire’s setting is the four academic elements of race, gender, ethnicity and class, compounded into cityscapes. As societies and their cities change, so do their fires, which serve as both an index of change and a judgment upon it.

The book is less about fire and cities than about fire within cities. Outside that setting, it stumbles, as when Hoffer struggles to integrate wind into his narrative. Except in the case of the World Trade Center, wind largely determined the spread of these fires (in Detroit, its absence kept the flames from rampaging throughout the metropolis). If the wind blew, the fire propagated; if it calmed, the fire lapsed. Although Hoffer gives full credit to this fact, his wind has a role but neither motive nor morality, being outside the social matrix that structures his narrative. Its behavior cannot be analyzed, as can that of greedy developers, youthful vandals and crooked politicians.

But absence of intent is not the same as absence of agency: Wind, too, obeys laws. Most of these fires burned under the impress of a dry cold front that caused winds to veer and quicken. This is a phenomenon as elemental to wildland firefighting as flashover is to urban. A well-known map of the Baltimore fire incorporates the timing of a front’s passage with the spread of the conflagration around the harbor; it was this shift, not the heroic firefight along the Jones Falls canal, that ultimately spared the city. In his redrawing of that map, however, Hoffer deletes the timed wind. A similar reconstruction exists for the Chicago fire; the passing of a massive front bonded that city’s conflagration to the million or more acres that burned regionally the same day. This too is missing.

The book remains a story of fire within the history of cities, not cities within the history of fire. Probably it could not be otherwise, for no generic scholarship on fire exists. The only fire department in a university is the one that sends engines when an alarm sounds. 

Stephen J. Pyne is a professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University and the author of a dozen books on fire history andmanagement, most recently “Tending Fire.”


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