Fire Prevention and Public Education
Generations of Americans can identify the now 75-year-old image of Smokey Bear, an anthropomorphic ursus wearing a forest ranger’s hat and carrying a shovel. The bear of cultural renown was created in 1944 to educate people about wildfire prevention. While his image is seared in everyone’s memories, wildfires unfortunately have not ended despite his admonition.
Education about fire dangers and risks and related emergency preparedness are mainly communicated through fire codes or regulations now, although the U.S. Fire Administration agency is tasked with carrying the campaign forward. Codes have made it common for us to see fire escape plans on every floor of hotels, in large restaurants, and in schools. Buildings are constructed to strict codes, including sprinkler systems required in buildings with particular capacity or use (such as schools, churches, and meeting halls). And electrical components and equipment are held to a high standard through testing.
Among the Fire Administration’s recent projects is outreach through the media, such as warning people about the dangers of the psychological condition hoarding, which poses a particular risk for fires. Hoarders collect such quantity of goods, often flammable things like magazines and books, that heating sources are blocked, exits are obscured, and first responders take a major risk entering a home to assist in the event of a fire.
Education about home fire safety is mostly aimed at children (through schools) and the elderly (through social services) as they comprise about a third of the total population and are disproportionately at risk. Fire education to these groups includes:
Stop, drop, and roll techniques for putting out fire on clothing;
installation and maintenance of smoke detectors; and
paying attention to cooking devices, lamps, candles, and other heat sources so they are not able to spark a fire when unattended.
The National Fire Protection Agency compiles statistics and case studies through which fire fighting professionals, insurance companies, manufacturers, and others can learn lessons about fire prevention and fire fighting. In 2017 the agency recorded 500,000 structure fires with 3,400 civilian fire deaths.
Fire Codes and Deaths
Fire is an essential element but a dangerous one for people. Advancements in fire suppression and survival strategies – as well as their enforcement -- only took place after thousands of people died in structural and wild fires. Governor John Winthrop of Massachusetts allegedly established the first building code in 1631 when he outlawed wooden chimneys and thatched roofs. Just a decade later there were fire wardens inspecting chimneys in America’s cities. The first fire escape was patented in the late 1800s but political corruption exempted many property owners from installing them when they became a requirement.
There’s a familiar cultural phrase, “Like shouting fire in a crowded theatre” which refers to starting a stampede. It probably came into use after the horrific Iroquois Theatre fire in Chicago’s Loop area in December 1903. The building, just a month old, had a capacity of 1,602 patrons when a muslin curtain caught fire and attempts to douse it were unsuccessful. Most unfortunately the building had one main staircase and was missing mandatory exit stairs from the upper floors, some saying that the building inspector overlooked their absence because a criminal syndicate owned the theatre. More than 600 people died in the crush of bodies trying to escape, when they jumped from unfinished fire escapes, or when the fire was accelerated by the opening of massive bay doors, which created a fireball inside the building. It stands as the most deadly structure fire in American history.
Similarly, the 1942 Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire in Boston ripped through a quasi-legal sprawling complex of lounges and ballrooms on a night when the building was filled to almost three times its allowed capacity. Decorations, including fabric covering the ceilings, and furnishings went up quickly, trapping people who could not find exits. The front door, which was jammed with dead bodies when firefighters arrived, was a revolving door rendered useless as people pushed against all parts of it in a desperate attempt to escape. Nearly 500 died. Again, the structure was loosely inspected and found afterward to include many fire code violations, including the use of a highly combustible gas in place of freon in refrigerators.
Another significant lesson in fire suppression was the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which started allegedly when Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a kerosene lantern in the barn, starting the structure on fire. When it was over, about three square miles of Chicago had been leveled and 300 people killed. Much of the conflagration is blamed on balloon framed buildings, which was a construction technique that allowed quick erection of inexpensive homes. Balloon framing does not have “fire stop” cross-timbers in the walls, allowing flames to race up the height of a building inside the walls, as if in a chimney. Making things worse, many structures had tar roofs that exacerbated the flames. There had also been a seasonal drought, with very little rain falling in the city over several months.
The recent Paradise, California wildfire was immensely destructive and out of control for days as it ravaged towns tucked into mountain sides. The fire, started by arcing high tension power lines owned by Pacific Gas and Electric, killed at least 85 as it burned more than 150,000 acres, yet it wasn’t the worst the country has seen.
The deadliest wildfires include:
Peshtigo, Wisconsin, 1871, killed 1,200 when a combination of logging, drought conditions, and high winds caused the flames to ravage 1.2 million acres.
Cloquet, Minnesota, 1917, killed 450 and leveled 38 small towns when it burned 250,000 acres.
The Great Fire of 1910 was on the Idaho/Montana border, burning 3 million acres and killing more than 85 people.
The Yarnell Hill fire, in 2013, killed 19 Granite State Hotshot firefighters who were trying to control the spread of the flames in the Arizona canyon.