It's Fire Season and History Repeats Itself. And we've got the songs to prove it.

Philadelphia's Row House fire, 2003

We don’t expect cities to burn in the 21st century. The exception of course is Philadelphia where the police force occasionally uses fire as a crime fighting tactic. But its wildfire season again in the American west and the California landscape is charred and the Central Valley sky is full of debris and smoke and any firefighter will tell you that the challenge in fighting fires that start in the woodlands and grasslands of the west is not the natural features of the fire zone, but the man-made features. 21st century fire fighting requires a strategy that takes water and chemical resources away from extinguishing nature’s fuel and re-directs them to protecting man-made fuel: the houses and personal property that now dot the rural landscape and the extensions of suburbia that creep and intrude into the open spaces surrounding western cities and towns.  Prior to the 20th century wild land fires caused little damage to personal property and took few lives. It was the cities that went up in smoke. The close proximity of their buildings, the use of easily combustible material, non-existent or unenforced building codes, and the lack of quality fire fighting equipment contributed to an endless string of tragic urban fires from sea to shining sea. These experiences inspired new fire-fighting technologies and strategies as well as literature and songs.  

Baltimore, Maryland burned to the ground in 1904. Within a year of the devastating fire a song about it appeared in the 1905 edition of “Mowry’s Songster,” a songbook that was popular with professional musicians. The Mowry’s song was actually a new version of an older song “The Boston Fire” which was first published in 1873 and refers to the “Great Boston Fire” of 1872 which consumed 776 buildings across 65 acres and killed 30 people including 12 fire fighters. The earliest known recording of “Baltimore Fire” is by Charlie Poole & the North Carolina Ramblers in 1929. He had been performing since the nineteen-teens and probably found the tune in Mowry’s.

On February 7, 1904 at approximately 11:00 a.m. a fire was reported at the John Hurst & Company building in Baltimore. Its flames quickly spread to other buildings and blocks and within minutes it was clear that the fire was overwhelming the city's fire fighters.

“'Fire, Fire' I heard the cry
From every breeze that passes by
All the world was one sad cry of pity
Strong men in anguish prayed
Calling out to heaven for aid
While the fire in ruin was layin’
Fair Baltimore, the beautiful city."

Baltimore fire leftovers, 1904

Within three hours the first fire fighters from other cities arrived on scene and not much later it was decided to resort to dynamiting the unburned buildings that surrounded the fire in order to remove potential fuel. Winds increased and this effort failed and the fire burned. Frigid temperatures also hindered the efforts. Washington, Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Atlantic City were just some of the communities that sent men and equipment. Eventually over 1,200 fire fighters were on the scene but most could only watch: Their hose couplings were the wrong size. They could not connect to Baltimore’s hydrants and the firestorm continued unabated. Finally, the fire fighters lined up 37 steam fire engines along a stream and pumped like mad, sending a wall of water up against the advancing blaze. 30 hours after the first flames ignited the last flames were brought under control.

Beneath the smoke smoldered the remains of over 1,500 destroyed buildings. 70 city blocks, the major part of central Baltimore was gone. The losses were estimated at $150,000,000 but worse yet: 35,000 people were left without employment. If there was good news it was that there were just 6 recorded deaths during the fire and according to the Baltimore Sun only one of those was directly attributed to the flames and debris.

Much of the destroyed area was rebuilt within two or three years. Baltimore adopted a new building code that emphasized fireproof materials such as granite pavers. Pressure from the citizenry was great but the demands of insurance companies also contributed to the new focus on fire safety.

Along with a song another legacy of the Baltimore Fire of 1904 was that it served as the catalyst to develop standardized fire fighting equipment in the United States, especially for hose couplings. The earliest efforts at standardizing equipment can be traced back to the years immediately following the “Great Chicago Fire” of 1872 (famously - at least in legend - caused by the lantern kicked over by Mrs. Leary’s cow) which claimed 18,000 buildings and 300 lives. But there had been little progress between then and 1904.  Following the Baltimore inferno however the National Fire Protection Association finally adopted nationwide standards for fire hydrants and hose connections. Unfortunately most cities have failed to implement the standards due to the cost of conversion and disagreements between various manufacturers who own patents on existing equipment….no company wants the other company’s equipment to become the standard.  A century later the national standards are met by only a handful of the most highly populated U.S. cities: 18 of 48. This failure has been tragically costly.

Late afternoon in the Bay Area, Oakland hills fire, 1991.

In October 1991 football fans across the country tuned in to watch a nationally televised bay area game and witnessed the open space grasslands in the hills above Oakland ignite, burn and turn into a  suburban firestorm that eventually killed 25 people and injured 150 others. 3,354 single-family homes and 437 apartment and condominium units were lost. The economic loss has been estimated at $1.5 billion.  In the final report on the firestorm “incompatible hose couplings” are cited as a contributing factor in the failure to control the fire. Oakland’s hydrants had 76 mm. couplings; the neighboring fire departments that had joined the fire fighting effort had the standard 64 mm. Their hoses were useless.

87 years later and 3,000 miles away it was Baltimore all over again. The song has already been written; it just needs a few new verses.

Baltimore Fire” on American Pastimes: Charlie Poole & the North Carolina Ramblers, Hank & Shaidri Alrich, David Grisman’s Bluegrass Band, The McGarrigles & the Wainwrights.

“California’s Burning” by Dave Alvin. "Fire on the Mountain" by Bill Monroe & the Bluegrass Boys.

Sources: Inside Bluegrass, July 2005. Hank Alrich website: hankalrich.com


Shaidri & Hank Alrich, residents of Plumas County, Ca. & Austin, Texas.
 


Charlie Poole (1892-1931)






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