Adam Bannister

Editor, IFSEC Global

Author Bio ▼

Adam Bannister is editor of IFSEC Global. A former managing editor at Dynamis Online Media Group, he has been at the helm of the UK's leading fire and security publication since 2014.
September 1, 2016

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The Great Fire of London and 5 other blazes that devastated world cities

As London marks the 350th anniversary of a blaze that destroyed 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches and St Paul’s Cathedral, here are five other fires – from Rome in antiquity to Tokyo 1923 – that have devastated major world cities.

great fire london

The Great Fire of London, depicted by an unknown painter

A series of events are taking place around London to mark the Great Fire of London, including an exhibition at the Museum of London, walking tours at St Pauls Cathedral and Pudding Lane and numerous art exhibitions and lectures reflecting on the fire and its aftermath.

Over the course of three days the fire, which started in a bakery on Pudding Lane, gutted the medieval City of London inside the old Roman city wall and engulfed 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches and St Paul’s Cathedral. Of 80,000 inhabitants 70,000 lost their homes.

Few of us who went to school in the UK will be unaware of this epoch-defining event and its legacy – not least the birth of the insurance industry and the abatement of the Black Death. However, in the thousands of years before firefighting matured and the concept of fire safety in construction emerged, there are countless other blazes that engulfed entire swathes of major world cities.

Here are five of the most catastrophic.

Great Fire of Rome, 64 AD

Roman historian Tacitus recorded that the Great Fire of Rome spread rapidly and burned for five and a half days, leaving 10 of the city’s 14 districts either destroyed or seriously damaged.

The fire began, wrote Tacitus, among flammable materials in Rome’s shops and was hastened in its journey through narrow, twisting streets by high winds. Looters and arsonists exacerbated the problem by throwing torches and impeding efforts to contain the fire.

The city-state’s notorious emperor, Nero, blamed Christians for the fire and embarked on a campaign of persecution. Nero himself was blamed by some political opponents for deliberately starting the fire through proxies. Tacitus does, however, credit the Emperor with measures that contained the blaze and sheltered citizens-turned refugees.

If historians can never verify the conflicting accounts, they can be sure that there was no fiddling while Rome burned. The fiddle was not invented until the 10th century.

He may, instead, have played the lyre, another stringed instrument – though “Nero Lyred while Rome burned” hasn’t the same ring.

The Torches of Nero, by Henryk Siemiradzki

The Torches of Nero by Henryk Siemiradzki depicts the trial of Christians in the wake of the Great Fire of Rome

The Great London Fire of 1212

Also known as “the Great Fire of Suthwark” London’s 1212 fire was said to have killed 3,000 of its citizens out of a city of 40,000 to 50,000 people, although this is thought to be an exaggeration.

The blaze destroyed London Bridge, including the numerous house constructed on it by King John.

One version of events has it that many Londoners fled across the bridge, only to be trapped there when high winds carried red-hot embers across the river and ignited buildings on the bridge’s north side.

One contemporary account described the events: “An exceeding great multitude of people passing the Bridge, either to extinguish or quench it, or else to gaze at and behold it, suddenly the north part, by blowing of the south wind, was also set on fire, and the people which were even now passing the Bridge, perceiving the same, would have returned, but were stopped by the fire.”

The Great Chicago Fire, 1871

The devastation wrought by the Great Chicago fire – 300 dead and 17,000 buildings destroyed – resulted from a perfect trinity of firefighting missteps, unfavourable weather conditions and neglect of basic fire safety engineering principles in construction.

The blaze began on 8 October 1871 following an exceptionally long drought. The city’s buildings, two thirds of which were made from wood and topped with highly flammable tar or shingle roofs, served as perfect kindling. Even the downtown area’s sidewalks were made from wood.

Strong southwesterly winds transported flying embers towards the ‘Windy City’s’ heart and ‘fire whirls’ – created when rising hot air meets cooler air – terrorised citizens.

Firefighters were initially sent to the wrong place, while an alarm raised failed to register with watchmen at the courthouse.

great chicago fire

Currier & Ives lithograph shows people fleeing across Chicago’s Randolph Street Bridge

Lasting 27 hours the fire laid waste to roughly 3.3 square miles of Illinois’s largest city and left more than 100,000 residents homeless.

While some said the fire was divine retribution for declining moral standards, architect Frederick Law Olmsted had a more plausible explanation: “Chicago had a weakness for ‘big things’, and liked to think that it was outbuilding New York […] The faults of construction as well as of art in its great showy buildings must have been numerous. Their walls were thin, and were overweighted with gross and coarse misornamentation.”

Lessons were learned as the city rewrote fire standards and restructured its firefighting department. Thirteen years later, in 1884, Chicago erected the first tall building to be supported, both inside and outside, by a fireproof metal frame.

San Francisco Earthquake, 1906

San Francisco’s great fire began when a huge earthquake – one the largest in US history – erupted on the morning of 18 April 18 1906 and overturned stoves and lamps. With the city’s water mains wrecked and the fire chief dead from the initial quake, firefighters were reduced to a helpless, demoralised rabble.

Taken in desperation, their decision to dynamite entire blocks to act as firebreakers when the fire still raged after three days, is now seen as a failure. Some estimate this may have accounted for as many as 50% of the buildings destroyed. This disaster caused the deaths of 3,000 people and destroyed nearly 300,000 buildings.

san francisco burning in 1906

The burning of San Francisco, 18 April 1906, view from St Francis Hotel

Great Kantō earthquake, Tokyo, 1923

Like San Francisco only 17 years before, Tokyo was ravaged by not just a powerful earthquake but an ensuing fire. But things became more complicated still for Japan’s capital as 88 years before the tidal wave that brought its nuclear plants into meltdown, the 1923 quake also unleashed a Tsunami.

The death toll was estimated to be as high as 142,000 (38,000 of whom were incinerated in an instant by a firestorm-induced ‘fire whirl’). Some 570,000 homes were destroyed, leaving 1.9 million homeless.

The city was unlucky in other ways too. The earthquake struck at lunchtime when many people were cooking, meaning numerous fires breaking out throughout the city. The fires then spread more rapidly because of the high winds from a nearby typhoon, some even evolving into firestorms.

The city had been rebuilt only for a few years before once again it was destroyed in World War II by American B-29 bombers.

Destruction of the area around Sensō-ji temple in Asakusa

Destruction of the area around Sensō-ji temple in Asakusa, Tokyo, 1923

 

 

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Is the fire protection industry adapting to the post-Grenfell reality fast enough? At FIREX International 2019, Europe's only dedicated fire safety event, some of the world's leading fire safety experts covered this theme. This eBook covers the key insights from those discussions on the developments shaping the profession, with topics including:

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  • Hackitt’s Golden Thread: Fire, facilities and building safety
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