(I failed to repost this essay here like I intended to. Apologies to anyone who tried and failed to reach the BVC site! We are working like mad to have the new site up soon.)
As I said in last week’s essay, it’s in the public interests of a society to keep fires from spreading. It’s even more in those interests to keep them from starting in the first place — and because of that, government regulations designed to prevent, spot, and slow down fires go back a very long way.
Prevention is in many ways the most difficult, especially when you’re talking about a pre-modern society. Not only is open flame needed for many tasks of daily life, but the government lacks the wherewithal to inspect people’s homes and businesses on a regular basis to make sure they aren’t creating a hazard. The Great Fire of London in 1666 started in the bakery of Thomas Farynor; we’ll never know whether he was telling the truth about having properly banked the fire in his oven, raked it out, and swept the surrounding floor clear of flammable material before going to bed, but it’s entirely possible his negligence on that front burned down four-fifths of London.
Even now, we have limited capacity to enforce good behavior. Much of the time, we rely on advice and social pressure to make people take precautions: homeowners in rural parts of California ought to keep the ground near their houses clear of burnable brush, but not all of them do. Hell, we can’t even keep people from setting off fireworks or chucking cigarette butts out their car windows, which is how many of our wildfires have started. It’s possible to imagine a technological or magical setup that does monitor for these things . . . but that rapidly slides in a direction that feels dystopian. We don’t like the level of surveillance and control that would be required to make sure people behave optimally.
We have more success in regulating what our property can be made out of. Long before you get to modern requirements for non-flammable materials, there have been building codes hitting that same target on a macro scale. Houses clad in stone or brick, with asphalt shingles (modern) or tile roofs (ancient), are much less vulnerable to flying sparks; those may still cover wooden interiors, but they offer less of an easy foothold from without. London tried to impose regulations in this vein before 1666, but all of them had failed in the face of tradition and pre-existing structures. In a way, there was a silver lining to everything burning down: with everyone having to rebuild from scratch, the authorities were able to ram through some much-needed safety measures. Henceforth all buildings were to be faced with brick.
They also mandated more structural approaches to the problem. Wider streets form ready-made firebreaks, helping to contain any blazes. You still may lose a whole neighborhood, and under sufficiently strong winds even a ninety-foot gap might not be enough, but the odds of limiting the destruction are much improved. Over time, though, and with governmental neglect, these measures can degrade. Pre-Fire London houses may have had a limited footprint, but they were “jettied out” by building larger upper floors supported by beams. Eventually it became possible to escape your burning house by climbing from your own window into the one across the street, because they were that close together.
Another key safety measure is making sure you know about fires as soon as possible, because the sooner you start fighting them, the more likely you are to succeed. If your only alert system is people shouting in the streets, that’s not very good — especially because people might be shouting for many reasons! Better to have some kind of clear alarm, whether that’s a modern siren, whistles, wooden rattles, or something else loud and identifiable. In England, they would ring church bells “backwards,” a rather confusing term for ringing them with a muffled peal.
Of course, you have to spot the fire before you can sound the alarm. To that end, some towns had fire watch patrols; this was one of the original duties of the Roman Vigiles. (Often this doubles up with watch patrols in general, since the same people keeping an eye out for malefactors can simultaneously look for ominous flames or smoke.) It can also help to station watchers in high places, where their vantage point lets them survey a large area for trouble, and then dispatch a response. Nowadays you often see this approach in rural or wilderness areas, but it also used to exist in towns. (And, as with the town watch, it might be part of the regular fortifications: if you have a wall with towers, turning around to look into the settlement as well as outside it gives you a chance to spot internal problems.) Some of our modern fire alarms are the same idea without the need for humans; they use sensors to detect smoke or excessive heat and warn everyone within earshot. Future developments might make it common for those alarms to alert the nearest fire station, a la burglar alarms.
The final line of defense loops us back around to the idea of firefighting, which is to say, have people and materials ready when the need arises. Those fire hydrants that dot our streets? Those are there because we mandate them for safety reasons. Same with buckets of sand, fire suppressant blankets, or other emergency tools. Training volunteer firefighters is akin to training volunteer militias, in both approach and rationale; run people through periodic drills and refresher courses so they can protect their neighbors when necessary.
As usual, the question a science fiction or fantasy writer needs to ask is, what would this look like in my world? Depending on the setting, it may look much the same, because the technological developments or magical frameworks aren’t very relevant to the question of “what happens when things catch fire?” But given how utterly destructive an out-of-control fire can be, even in modern times, this is liable to be a high priority for the powers that be. Contrary to the propaganda of their opponents, even emperors don’t tend to fiddle while their cities burn; they know all too well that they’ll lose revenue from the destruction, not to mention popular support, and that all it takes is an unfavorable wind for their own palaces to be destroyed. So they’ll take measures to prevent fires, to spot them early, to keep them under control, and to put them out if possible, whether those means are high-tech, mystical, or utterly mundane.