Fire has been an uneasy companion for humans for as long as we have existed.
Control of fire has allowed us to slip the normal bonds of nature, offering a defense against hungry predators and allowing us to shape elements such as iron into tools. Some paleontologists even think that our ability to cook food may have paved the way for the explosion in the human brain size. Cooking allows us to consume new and interesting foods and also boosts the nutrient value to provide extra fuel for our calorie-hungry brains.
But fire is also a historic menace. Residents of ancient villages and cities lived in fear of fire, started by candles, lamps, cooking fires and natural sources.
It’s not for nothing that the phrase “Nero fiddled while Rome burned” has become a universal expression for indifference or incompetence by our leaders. One evening in July of the year 64 AD, fire broke out somewhere in a commercial district near the famous Circus Maximus. Unlike the Rome of today, most buildings then were made of wood, so the flames raced unchecked through the city.
The fire burned for nine days and ancient sources say up to two thirds of the city was scorched, with something like 60,000 structures destroyed.
Emperor Nero, already unpopular, was widely blamed for the ineffective effort to battle the flames. Some conspiracy-minded Romans even blamed him for starting the fire, though the details of how and why varied.
In 1666, much of the medieval city of London was destroyed by a fire that appeared to have started in a bakery. It burned for four days and consumed more than 13,000 structures, including St. Paul’s Cathedral, and left most of the city’s residents homeless.
Fire nearly wiped out the first English settlement in the New World before construction was even complete, when a blaze destroyed most of the buildings at Jamestown in 1608.
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Modern firefighting organizations didn’t start appearing until the 18th and 19th century. Ben Franklin famously organized a fire company in Philadelphia in 1736, but there were no paid firefighters in America until nearly the Civil War.
There were some fire companies in Europe before Franklin’s organization, but the first recorded fire department run by a city was in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1834.
Even in an era of professional firefighters, cities remained vulnerable. Chicago burned in 1871, when a blaze broke out on a dry, windy night in October and quickly spread to destroy more than 17,000 buildings, despite the efforts of the city’s well-organized fire department.
And in 1906, it was uncontrolled fire that did most of the damage to the city of San Francisco following the famous earthquake.
But still, by the 20th century, people in well-developed countries had become accustomed to the idea that they could sleep safe at night because the fire department was standing by to stop flames.
Driving through St. Helena this last weekend, however, made me reflect on how quickly that comforting illusion has evaporated.
On the first really hot, dry day of the year, smoke was billowing up from behind the hills in the east and streaming down over the city, creating that smelly brown-gray haze that we have become depressingly accustomed to. Two fires were burning in that direction – a smallish one in Pope Valley and a much larger one in Yolo County.
Fortunately, neither fire amounted to anything close to the mega-fires of recent summers, but it brought back all those bad memories. It was a reminder that for those of us in the fire-prone West, despite the skills and bravery of our professional fire departments, we have a lot more in common with those fire-fearing residents of Rome than we are comfortable admitting to ourselves.