New Worlds: Fighting Fire

(We are getting very close to BVC being up and running again! But we aren’t there yet, so once again, this week’s New Worlds Patreon essay is hosted here on my site.)

As devastating as fires can be nowadays, we have ways of dealing with them. In my kitchen there sits a canister of fire-suppressing chemicals; on my ceilings perch little disks that scream bloody murder when they smell smoke or carbon monoxide; if something goes wrong, a big truck will roll up and hook itself up to a hydrant that will spew out all the water I might need, at high enough pressures to reach upper floors with ease.

But rewind the clock, and things get ugly fast.

I often suspect that every major pre-modern city has a Great Fire somewhere in its history — often more than one. When most buildings are constructed of wood and people rely on open flames to light and heat their houses or to cook their meals, you have a recipe for frequent fires. And when there’s no running water, any fire has the potential to slip out of control and consume whole swaths of a city before it’s done.

How do you fight something like that? If you’re lucky enough to have a nearby river or canal, or if there’s piped water (and panicking neighbors haven’t cut the pipes open to get water for themselves, leaving none for you), then you may be able to throw enough water to quench the fire before it spreads. Or other liquids: milk, beer, and even urine have been pressed into service. If you don’t have water — or if the blaze starts with something like grease; remember, everybody, don’t chuck water over your kitchen fires! — you can smother it instead, with sand or dirt or dung, or even beat a small flame out with a blanket. But water has long been our go-to solution, when we can get it in sufficient quantities.

Fire engines of a sort aren’t all that new. Prior to mechanization, though, the “engine” is likely to consist of a big cask on a cart, with some guys manually pumping to send water through a hose. Early versions of this can’t generate much pressure; even the roof of a one-story building might be out of their reach. It’s certainly out of reach of the people armed with what amount to giant syringes, squirting water out four pints at a time before stopping to refill. When the main container runs dry, you need a new one, and there may be no source conveniently nearby. Because of this, fighting a fire may be less about putting out the building that’s ablaze, and more about making sure the neighboring structures don’t join it. Wet down the roofs and the walls, jump on any sparks that try to take hold, and abandon the other to its fate.

Anybody who remembers their geometry, though, knows that the more a fire spreads, the bigger the perimeter you have to defend. And under windy conditions, you might have to worry not just about the adjacent buildings, but places farther down the street, or on nearby streets. A fire can hopscotch over the defenses and take root in a new location, and now you’re fighting on multiple fronts — a state no general wants to be in.

So it may be that you have to take drastic measures. In the early hours of the Great Fire of London (1666 edition; there have been others), the Lord Mayor ought to have ordered his people to tear down the houses around the burning area, creating a gap the sparks wouldn’t be able to leap. This was an entirely feasible move; hooks mounted on poles, with rings through which ropes could be attached for pulling, were a standard piece of firefighting gear, and the style of construction common at the time could be destroyed pretty easily. But the people living in those houses weren’t the ones who owned them, and the Lord Mayor, fearing to offend the property owners, was reluctant to give the order. No such niceties prevailed around the Tower of London; when the fire threatened to get near the munitions depot there, royal soldiers blew up whole streets of houses to keep it at bay.

Even these measures can fail, though, and the larger a conflagration grows, the more likely it is that no human effort can do more than slow it. When that happens, you have no real choice but to wait for the flames to die down on their own, or for blessed rain to come and put the fire out the natural way. In the meanwhile, it can burn for days, destroying entire cities in the process.

Who are the people who do the firefighting? In the first instance, it tends to be the residents and their neighbors. They’re the ones on the spot — and also the ones with the most to lose. In a well-organized area, there might even be a crew of volunteers tasked with keeping tools and materials on hand, so they’re not caught flat-footed when trouble comes. Unfortunately, if a fire spreads, eventually every householder has to decide whether it’s better to try and defend their home, or write it off as lost and flee with their valuables while they still can. In the case of a very large fire, you often wind up with streets so clogged by fleeing residents that nobody can get through . . . including reinforcements coming to fight the blaze.

When a fire gets that large, though, higher authorities tend to get involved. Armies are generally made up of strong, robust men, ideal for the heavy labor of fire suppression, and they come pre-arranged into command units; it’s not surprising that soldiers have often been tapped for this job. They can also help keep the peace when people start panicking, and their mere presence is proof that whoever’s in charge is trying to fix the problem — good for the inevitable PR questions afterward.

As for dedicated firefighting services, they’ve often either been volunteer groups supported by charity, or privately-owned businesses. How can you make a profit off fighting fires? The above-board answer is that you get an insurance company to pay you for saving the properties under their aegis; the less admirable one is that you extort money from the householder before you get to work. Stories say that in the late Roman Republic, Marcus Licinius Crassus ran a company that even bought the burning property out from under the desperate owner before putting out the flames: a true example of a fire sale.

Firefighting is one of those places where it’s really better not to leave it in the hands of private enterprise. Because a blaze in one house threatens all those around it, there’s a public benefit to making such things get suppressed as quickly as possible. But to have a government-run and government-funded service, you need a sufficiently strong and well-organized government, which not every place and time can supply. Although the Roman Empire had an imperially-organized service called the Vigiles (originally made up of slaves; later of freedmen), few lands followed in their footsteps. Even now, seventy percent of U.S. firefighters are volunteers, not full-time professionals.

In the long run, the best answer for how to deal with fires is to not have them in the first place — maybe. The logic that works great in cities turns out to be much less good in nature. I live in California, where there are frequent wildfires; lately many of them have been devastating. It turns out that the Forest Service’s long-standing policy of suppressing all fires where possible has thrown the whole ecosystem out of balance: the forests out here are supposed to burn periodically, to the point where some trees can’t reproduce without intense heat to crack open their cones. Frequent small fires clear out the underbrush; suppress those, and you’re left with monstrous quantities of fuel when a blaze gets out of control. In consultation with local indigenous groups, who have their own traditions around forest fires, we’re moving toward a model that will hopefully be more balanced.

Within a city, though, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. So next week, we’ll look at a few ounces!

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