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date: 24 June 2022

The Problem of Fire in the American City, 1750–Presentfree

The Problem of Fire in the American City, 1750–Presentfree

  • Anna Rose AlexanderAnna Rose AlexanderCalifornia State University East Bay


Fires have plagued American cities for centuries. During the 18th century, the Great Fire of Boston (1760), the First Great Fire of New York City (1776), the First Great New Orleans Fire (1788), and the Great Fire of Savannah (1796) each destroyed hundreds of buildings and challenged municipal authorities to improve safety in an increasingly risky environment. Beginning in the 19th century, with increasing commerce, rapid urbanization, and the rise of industrial capitalism, fires became more frequent and destructive. Several initiatives sought to reduce the risk of fire: volunteer fire companies emerged in all major cities, fire insurance developed to help economic recovery, and municipal infrastructure like fire hydrants became ubiquitous to combat blazes. Despite significant efforts to curb this growing urban problem, fire dangers increased in the late 19th century as cities became epicenters of industry and the populations boomed. The “great” fires of the late 19th century, like those that took place in Chicago (1871), Boston (1872), Seattle (1889), Baltimore (1904), and San Francisco (1906), fundamentally altered cities. The fires not only destroyed buildings and took lives, but they also unearthed deep-rooted social tensions. Rebuilding in the aftermath of fire further exacerbated inequalities and divided cities. While fire loss tapered off after 1920, other issues surrounding urban fires heated up. The funneling of resources to suburbs in the post-war white-flight period left inner cities ill-equipped to handle serious conflagrations. In last few decades, suburban sprawl has created exurban fire regimes, where wildfires collide with cities. Extreme weather events, dependence on fossil fuels, deregulation of risky industries, and a lack of safe and affordable housing has put American metropolitan areas on a path to experience another period of “great” fires like those of the late 19th and 20th centuries.


  • Late 19th-Century History
  • Urban History
  • Environmental History

Fire and Urban America

Understanding fire is fundamental to understanding urban America. Often called a bad master but a good servant, fire both created and destroyed American cities with vigor during the past three hundred years. Fire, harnessed as a source of energy for industry, made industrial capitalism and rapid urbanization possible, clouding cityscapes with billowing factory smoke as a sign of its work. Nevertheless, the landscapes that fire helped create—densely populated cities filled with factories—posed ideal scenarios for the uncontrollable spread of fire. No other environmental threat has consistently affected urban development like fire. Since the early days of nationhood, a small fire could quickly turn into a citywide blaze and destroy entire business districts or neighborhoods. Coming to terms with their flammable environments, city dwellers developed strategies to contend with fire’s destructive nature. In the early 19th century, building codes, fire departments, water infrastructure, and fire insurance became standard aspects of urban life, developed out of a need to protect life and property from the growing presence of flame.

The peak of the urban fire crisis came in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Cities throughout the United States experienced horrific fires. The great fires of Chicago (1871), Boston (1872), Seattle (1889), Baltimore (1904), and San Francisco (1906) brought unprecedented change to those communities and made way for drastic reforms. Occurring in the height of the Gilded Age, the great fires revealed deep levels of inequality in cities, and those in power tried to maintain their levels of privilege in post-fire rebuilding efforts. Progressive Era reforms, intended to improve public order through science and technology, transformed not only critical urban concerns like sewage, sanitation, and pollution but also city planning to create places that are more resilient and prepared for conflagrations. Many of these reforms had enormous success and contributed to making cities less flammable by the mid-20th century.

Despite improvements, fire regimes changed. While industry and wooden structures made cities prone to fires in previous historical contexts, other factors more recently increased American vulnerability to fires. Cohabitation with unruly fire became a marker of the late-20th- and early 21st-century ecological era, an era that fire historian Stephen Pyne has dubbed the “pyrocene.”1 Wildfire and urban fire, once phenomena deemed entirely different beasts, now blend in a frightening way. Even though American metropolitan regions by the turn of the 21st century occupied a fundamentally different place with fire, one caused by climatic change and global warming, looking to the past to better understand the present remains a valuable exercise because fire is here to stay.

Antebellum Fires, 1800–1860s

During the 18th century, city residents had to contend with major fires such as the Great Fire of Boston (1760), the First Great Fire of New York City (1776), the First Great New Orleans Fire (1788), and the Great Fire of Savannah (1796). But generally, before 1800 North American cities suffered relatively small fires. The frequent incinerations were rarely categorized as conflagrations. Daily chimney or cooking fires were part of the gamble of using flames to heat homes and cook food, and putting out small blazes was achieved with relative ease. Toward the end of the 18th century, as dense housing, wooden buildings, and combustible fuels became essential parts of the urban landscape, more cities began to experience blazes of unprecedented destruction. Bucket brigades were no match for massive fires that devoured entire neighborhoods. Instead, as the country settled into nationhood, officials implemented fire safety measures that mimicked the political culture of republican-liberalism that came to define much of the 19th century.2 Republican ideals of civic virtue inspired men to join volunteer fire brigades in the first decade of the century. Whereas liberalism and its emphasis on personal interest motivated individuals to take protection into their own hands by purchasing fire insurance. Working alongside advances in city planning, the presence of volunteer fire brigades and fire insurance made rapid industrialization and urbanization a possibility and changed the course of American urban history.3

As cities transitioned to industrial capitalism, shops and factories housing unknown stockpiles of ammunition or combustibles became commonplace, all of which could turn a small fire into an inferno. The 1820 Great Fire of Savannah, for example, occurred when flames from a small stable fire reached a shop that held several barrels of gunpowder. A massive explosion erupted and shot flaming debris throughout the city center, thus dispersing the fire and turning half the city to ash.4 Significant infrastructural improvements in road construction, transportation, and lighting occurred early in the 19th century to accommodate growth and meet the demands of modern city life. Ultimately, some of those improvements, like replacing the dim oil-based street lamps with gaslights, indeed increased nighttime visibility but also made the city more prone to fire risk. For example, a burst gas line at a warehouse started the 1835 Great Fire of New York that destroyed more than five hundred buildings. The Italian painter Nicolino Calyo (1799–1884), who witnessed the conflagration firsthand, provided the primary visual history of that fire and produced twenty-two images of the flames devouring the city (Burning of the Merchants’ Exchange).5 The growing experiences of citywide fires, such as the ones in Savannah and New York, inspired cities to adopt sweeping preventative ordinances. By 1830, Boston, Philadelphia, and New York tried to mitigate risk by building new structures with brick instead of wood, widening streets, and using gridded city designs, which embodied “republican predilection for control and balance.”6

Fire prevention measures had limited impact in growing cities. City officials were compelled to start investing in efforts to fight flames once they broke out. Firefighting originated in ancient Rome and was part of American towns since the 17th century, but the spectacle of watching flames overtake a building and men working to save it helped reinforce republican notions of civic virtue.7 Volunteer brigades employed the language of republicanism in their slogans and incorporated symbols of lady liberty onto their flags and parade hats. For example, the slogan of the St. Louis Washington Hose Company focused on self-sacrifice: “To save our fellow citizens we hazard ourselves.”8 Firefighters received special privileges and proudly marched in parades, attended special ceremonies, and were often exempt from paying taxes or serving on juries. Notably, some cities exempted volunteer firefighters from serving in the military and being drafted. When, in 1863, New York firefighters were drafted to fight in the Civil War, they cited this exemption and protested the draft fiercely.9 Antebellum firefighters rarely ventured inside burning buildings to rescue victims. Instead, they conducted the very public and physically taxing work of hauling hoses, pumping water, and attacking blazes from outside. Firefighters became striking figures of modern urban landscapes.10

While firefighting in the United States was historically a white occupation, that does not mean people of color were absent from the firehouse.11 Having a fire company in the neighborhood meant that lives and property could be saved more quickly. With the growing segregation of communities based on race, ethnicity, and class, some residents feared they lacked proper protection from fire. To protect African American neighborhoods in Philadelphia, the African Fire Association (AFA) started an independent black brigade in 1818. Nonetheless, white outrage and petitions to prevent the AFA from using city hydrants contributed to its short-lived existence.12 Southern cities generally had more African American participation in firefighting. New Orleans and Savannah, for example, enlisted black firefighters in 1817 and 1825, respectively. African American firefighters tended to operate under white commanders, thus replicating dominant labor structures in the South.13 Despite changing demographics, black volunteers only gained access to fire companies throughout the United States during Reconstruction, with notable holdouts like Philadelphia not admitting its first African American firefighter until 1886.14

Joining a volunteer brigade was an avenue for political power.15 Fire companies in the early 19th century operated as much more than protection against fire—they were political clubs, fraternal organizations, and neighborhood gangs, which made entry into them difficult for immigrants and people of color.16 Nativism among the predominantly Protestant Anglo firemen ramped up as Catholic immigrants from Ireland, Poland, and Italy arrived en masse and started to create competition for jobs. A clash between firefighters and Irish immigrants turned into a violent brawl in 1837 when an Irish funeral procession crashed into firefighters of Engine 20, starting the Broad Street Riots. In response to the riots, the mayor initiated a professional, paid fire department in the city (Boston Professional Fire Department), and Irish Americans started to make inroads into the professional companies. The professionalization of brigades across the country generally coincided with the adoption of new fire-related technologies, like the fire alarm telegraph or the smoke detector, that required a new level of specialization.17

The public image of volunteer firefighters who were seen as self-sacrificing heroes began to deteriorate in the mid-century. Frequent skirmishes between rival companies made volunteer firefighters seem lawless, aggressive, and brutish, or what historian Amy Greenberg describes as “bound up in the expression of a masculine idea.”18 Negative stereotypes of drunken immigrants joining companies also contributed to the shift in public opinion that volunteers did more harm than good in cities. With the adoption of steam fire engines around 1850, fire companies no longer needed as many men to operate the hand pumps; companies could downsize and let go of wayward volunteers. Transitioning to professional and paid fire companies allowed cities to implement selective hiring practices, physical examinations, and ongoing training, which helped firefighters regain their place as emblems of republican civic duty.

The history of fire in cities often emphasizes accidental mishaps: Mrs. O’Leary’s cow knocking over a lantern and causing the Great Chicago Fire (1871) or a washerwoman leaving a pot of water boiling and starting the Great Fire of Pittsburgh (1845). Often excluded from the story about how fire has shaped cities is the intentional and malicious destruction by fire. During invasions and occupations, bathing a city in flames was a common military tactic to subdue and debilitate a population. During the War of 1812, for instance, British troops set their eyes on the mostly undefended capital of Washington, DC. They set bonfires in all the key government buildings, including the president’s mansion (later called the White House), the Capitol, and the Library of Congress. Scorch marks have been intentionally kept on the White House to remind the public of the scars of foreign invasion.19 Perhaps the most memorable example of fire as a weapon of war comes from the burning of Atlanta in 1864, immortalized in the film Gone with the Wind (1939).20 The power of fire helped change the tide of war, and the devastation that befell the city helped boost Northern morale.

Wartime fires account for only a small number of intentional burnings. Changing urban demographics throughout the 19th century stoked the flame of discrimination and led to a wave of arson cases. In the Cincinnati race riots of 1829, white mobs primarily composed of Irish immigrants angry about labor competition attacked and burned black neighborhoods to the ground. This violent act of arson sought to change the city, and it did just that when one to two thousand African Americans fled Cincinnati and settled in Canada.21 Surging immigration in Philadelphia between 1830 and 1850 created a volatile environment now known for dozens of treacherous racially and ethnically motivated riots. One of the more notable riots occurred when a group of three thousand anti-black rioters set fire to Pennsylvania Hall after an 1838 meeting of the Anti-Slavery Society. Not only did the rioters stand by to watch the building incinerate, but firefighters refused to put it out and instead helped protect surrounding structures.22 Irish Catholics frequently faced the wrath of collective violence in antebellum cities, and their neighborhoods were often targets of arson. The burning of the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts (1834), the Philadelphia Nativist Riots (1844), and the Bloody Monday riots in Louisville (1855) offer just a few of the cases where residents chose fire to express anti-Catholic and anti-Irish sentiment.23 Perhaps the most incendiary riots of 19th-century urban life occurred during the 1863 New York Draft Riots. Class and race issues bubbled to the surface as men drafted to fight for the Union armies in the Civil War started to set fire to black neighborhoods, black churches, and the homes of black sympathizers. Some report that volunteer firefighters initially started the blaze but then had to spend four tireless days putting out the flames.24

Arson became such “a frequent companion” to urban life that it was often cited as the reason to initiate fire insurance.25 Mutual aid societies, where community members pooled their resources to help each other in times of need, served North America well until cities began expanding and fires became more frequent. The Mutual Assurance Company of the City of New York (1787), the Baltimore Equitable Society (1794), or the Charleston Mutual Insurance Company (1797) offer a few early examples of collective fire insurance that helped disperse risk.26 But as cities physically and demographically expanded, serving as sites of commerce and industry, joint-stock companies and private insurance facilitated the rise of capitalism. In 1792, for example, the Insurance Company of North America wrote the first private fire insurance policy and began the process of severing community-oriented aid.27 When in 1819 the Aetna Fire Insurance Company offered policies nationwide, they started a trend of privatizing safety and commodifying risk.28

The rise of fire insurance coincided with the development of economic liberalism, which emphasized private property and individual responsibility and downplayed the roles of collective institutions.29 Nevertheless, fire’s dichotomous nature as both a collective and individual hazard did not disappear when fire insurance policies become more prevalent. Conflagrations continued to afflict American cities for two centuries.

The Great Fires, 1870s–1920s

The “great” fires in US history occurred during the period between 1870 and the 1930s. Few American cities left this period unscathed by flame. From the 1866 fire in Portland, Maine that left ten thousand homeless, to the 1871 Urbana, Illinois fire that consumed the commercial district, or the 1889 Bakersfield, California fire that destroyed nearly two hundred buildings, urban fire touched every corner of the country and affected the shape of urban development.30 Economic growth following the Civil War, migration of newly emancipated peoples from the south to the north, and rapid industrialization contributed to population explosions in established cities on the coasts and in the Midwest. Cities became denser, buildings became taller, and residents switched from biofuels to fossil fuels like coal and gas for heating and industrial purposes. Ironically, the combustion technologies that made industrialization possible also made them more prone to ignition, or better put, “the same form of energy that could build a city could destroy it.”31 Furthermore, the expansion of railroads and the discovery of gold in California helped create boomtowns like San Francisco and Seattle, spreading urban flammability westward. Cities simultaneously became more desirable and more dangerous, and the fires unearthed the remarkable inequality of the Gilded Age.

Several fires during this period stand out and have received substantial scholarly treatment due to their unfathomable destruction that made city dwellers worldwide question their preparedness for fire: the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904, and the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906. A collision of factors in October 1871 created the ideal scenario for a fire to spread in the Midwest’s most prominent city: Chicago. Due to the city’s location as a transportation hub, Chicago experienced a 19th-century population boom, and the city rapidly expanded to accommodate new residents. Wood provided the quickest and most cost-effective way to build a city in the Midwest; as a result, by 1871, the majority of buildings, sidewalks, and even roads were constructed of wood. The ignition source of Chicago’s great fire remains hotly contested, but what is clear is that the flames furiously ate through the drought-stricken wooden city. During the course of more than two days, the conflagration killed at least three hundred people, destroyed more than seventeen thousand buildings, and left more than one hundred thousand residents homeless.32 The Chicago fire, as well as the Boston fire of 1872, had taught American urbanites a critical lesson about the value of fire prevention.

In 1904 Baltimore, for example, most commercial buildings had installed alarm systems, nearly three thousand fire hydrants dotted the streets, and twenty-five fire companies protected the city. Regardless, these improvements were no match for exceedingly unruly flames that came after a small fire meandered to adjacent buildings that held gasoline-powered engines. Nearby fire companies from Washington DC, Philadelphia, and New York rushed to help their neighboring city, but when they arrived, they discovered they could not hook up their hoses to Baltimore’s fire hydrants: a deadly design flaw that led to the nationwide standardization of fire equipment. In twenty-four hours, the fire overtook the commercial downtown and destroyed 1,500 buildings.33

The San Francisco earthquake and fire put into perspective the environmental factors that can lead to a fire. On April 18, 1906, a 7.9 magnitude earthquake rattled San Francisco; within minutes, some fifty fires started burning throughout the city due to fallen lanterns and singed electrical wiring. Unusually strong winds whipped down narrow streets and carried flames throughout the city. For several days, wooden buildings continued to feed the fire, and once it was finally extinguished, residents, 250,000 of whom became homeless, mourned the loss of half their city.34

The extraordinary scope of fires of this period served as a wakeup call for cities to improve fire safety to function in the modern industrialized age. Implementation of building codes that restricted the use of wood, investment in water infrastructure, the widening of streets, creating fire gaps between structures, and expanding fire departments were some of the significant improvements made. Social historians have studied great fires as a way to understand power dynamics through the rebuilding process. Many Progressive Era developers saw fire destruction in a positive light because it wiped the slate clean and let officials build anew with the latest scientific and technological developments in city planning. However, massive redevelopment often faced massive opposition. Take, for instance, working-class Chicagoans who protested building codes that would prohibit the use of wood construction materials; wooden framed homes, considerably less expensive than brick, were the only ways working-class citizens could afford to rebuild what they had lost in the fire.35 After the 1872 great fire of Boston, wealthy urbanites were frustrated with post-fire reforms, such as the street-widening initiatives that required the use of eminent domain to confiscate land and property to expand the streets.36 In San Francisco, the earthquake and fire exposed tainted social relations, especially with regards to the Chinese community. Already blamed for the so-called “Chinatown Plague” from 1900 to 1904, firefighters intentionally dynamited parts of Chinatown, claiming it would stop the spread of the fire. Those collecting data about casualties and injuries about the 1906 disaster effectively erased the Chinese experiences from the records. Historians have found few Asian names on the list of casualties, despite the fact that most of Chinatown was destroyed.37 Historian Joanna Dyl argues that disasters are not just fleeting events but rather processes that are “embedded in social relations and in history.”38 Taking into consideration the broader historical context, these fires in nearly every instance disproportionately affected women, immigrants, and people of color.

One group that rebuilt their reputation during this period of fantastic fires were firemen. Volunteer brigades by the mid-19th century had tarnished the heroic reputation of firefighting by engaging in gang-like rivalries and hypermasculine behavior.39 After the Civil War, firefighting became highly militarized; professional, paid firefighters became the norm in major cities. Firefighters took on an air of respectability once they became professionalized, and especially after citizens saw them hard at work during the “great” fires. Songs, poems, illustrations, and newspapers celebrated their good deeds. New York–based printmakers, Currier and Ives, immortalized firefighters in a series called The American Fireman (1858), where they depicted stately firemen doing the physically taxing work of rescuing women from flames, pulling engines, or hauling hoses. Despite the glowing embers and smoke that filled the background of each print, the firemen stoically did their job, making firefighting look precise and intentional.

The imagery of gallant and competent firefighters changed dramatically when Currier and Ives portrayed African American firefighters. In the post–Civil War era, firefighting became more diverse, and nearly all major cities hired black firefighters.40 Washington, DC, Chicago, and Philadelphia created separate African American brigades to protect African American neighborhoods. Building upon the idea of segregated companies, Currier and Ives included firefighting in their Darktown series from 1885.41 In stark contrast to the American Fireman series, the Darktown series depicted black firefighters as incompetent, rowdy, and fundamentally ill-equipped to help in the case of fire. In a print called “The Darktown Fire Brigade- Hook and Ladder Gymnastics” the firemen seem unaware of how to operate a ladder, point hoses up in the air instead of at the blazing building, and flail their arms about, creating a scene of pandemonium. Racism not only shaped the composition of fire companies, but it also incited a rise in arson cases.

By 1920, cities became less prone to accidental fires because they had adopted new fire ordinances to prevent ignition and new technologies to stop the spread of a fire once it had begun.42 Those improvements were not distributed equally among black and white neighborhoods, evidenced by black residents in Tulsa, Oklahoma petitioning for sewers, running water, police protection, paved streets, a fire station, and other amenities that were markers of safety and modernity.43 Subsequently, arson, especially in Jim Crow America, became a force of change. A study about arson as a form of social protest in Reconstruction-era Georgia found that the majority of arson victims were white owners of private residences, suggesting that “arsonists were attacking the very symbols of power and status that differentiated the propertied from the property-less” that “sustain[ed] and perpetuated that inequality.”44 Targeted arson may have been common in smaller communities, but the 1919 Red Summer riots, especially in Chicago and Omaha, indicate that violence instigated by white mobs was intent on eradicating entire African American neighborhoods with fire.45 In the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, white instigators torched thirty-five square blocks of an African American neighborhood. One of the victims, Mary Parrish, recalled fleeing the flames “as if we were animals escaping a forest fire,” while white onlookers silently watched.46

Suburban Fire Regime, 1930–Present

The great fires of the previous period inspired citywide developments in fire safety but also inspired residents to leave major cities in favor of smaller, seemingly more manageable communities. Take Berkeley, for instance. After the 1906 San Francisco fire, refugees, especially artists and writers, fled across the San Francisco Bay to Berkeley to build their new lives. The population quadrupled between 1910 and 1920, and the city’s infrastructure and public services failed to keep up with the growth. In 1923, a fire struck north of the university and students and firefighters fought the fire side by side. The Berkeley Fire, however, destroyed more than six hundred structures. While San Franciscans moved the short distance to Berkeley to escape a devastated urban landscape, millions of African Americans fled hundreds of miles to leave behind the injustices of the south and settle in northern cities. The Great Migration (1916–1970) not only changed the demographics of northern cities, but it also shaped relationships to fire hazards.

As northern cities grew, the opportunities for people of color to enter fire companies also grew. Nonetheless, firehouses into the 21st century remained predominately white and male. As early as the 1920s, in response to white domination in firehouses, ethnically oriented fire societies developed to help firemen achieve political power and fight against discrimination. Functioning as both mutual aid society and labor union, members pooled resources to help when someone fell ill. Leaders also advocated for better working conditions and pay as a collective group. Among the various firefighting societies were the Naer Tormid Society for Jewish firemen (1926), the Columbian Association for Italian firemen (1934), the Vulcan Society for African American firemen (1940), and the Emerald Society for Irish American civil servants (1953).47 The Vulcan Society often partnered with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Urban League to fight unfair hiring practices that disadvantaged African Americans. Even though the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision should have helped diversify fire departments, racial integration remained a slow and painful process that required persistent organizing to make it a reality.48

Just as the Civil War had militarized firefighting in the 19th century, World War II and the Korean War created a group of veterans looking for civil servant occupations. By 1960, veterans made up more than 60 percent of firefighters. Historian Mark Tebeau argues that this created “greater cohesiveness in firefighters’ occupation and [in] binding work groups yet more tightly together.”49 The hypermasculine behavior of firemen that Amy Greenberg unearthed in antebellum brigades became more entrenched in firefighting culture. Physical demands of rescuing people from burning buildings, alongside the twenty-four-hour shifts, made firefighting seemingly unsuitable for women, who have been expected to continue their ongoing domestic duties while employed.50 By 1990, only 2 percent of American firefighters were women, and only 13 percent were African American.51 Affirmative action initiatives helped alter this statistic somewhat, but the culture of heroic masculinity persists. One female firefighter has explained, “Our being here takes away from their pride in the job—their egos are deflated having women on the job.”52

The suburban boom of the 1950s and 1960s simultaneously decreased fire protection in cities and increased it in the suburbs, creating separate and unequal urban spaces. With white flight to the suburbs, property taxes that once funded services such as fire and police departments in cities were funneled into suburbs. City centers lost valuable funding for safety and upkeep, leading to the deterioration of older neighborhoods and understaffed departments to enforce building codes.53 Starting in the 1960s, a dramatic epidemic of arson plagued low-income neighborhoods. Between 1951 and 1977, the number of reported arson cases nationwide rose 3,100 percent; by 1980 arson accounted for an estimated 30 to 40 percent of all fire losses.54 Predominantly Latinx and black neighborhoods in older cities of the Northeast and Midwest, like Hoboken and Patterson in New Jersey, Denver’s central district, the Bronx borough of New York, or Cleveland, Ohio, were the main targets of deliberate burning.55 Intentionally mis-categorizing arson as the workings of deviant pyromaniacs suffering from mental health issues obscured the main culprits of the arson waves of the 1970s: greedy landlords, real estate speculators, and brokers. Deliberately set fires accelerated change, and landlords paid to have their buildings set on fire so they could collect insurance, rebuild anew, and charge higher rents, lending credence to journalists Joe Conason and Jack Newfield’s conclusion that “in housing, the final stage of capitalism is arson.”56 A resident of the South Bronx, Genevieve Brooks, explained that growing urban neglect made people think the Bronx was “just junkies and welfare folks. No one in authority was trying to combat arson.”57 By 1969, city officials boarded up several firehouses in the borough and slashed budgets for things like fire inspections, leaving residents increasingly vulnerable.58 In the 1970s, nearly 80 percent of the South Bronx’s housing burned, displacing 250,000 residents.59

Since new suburban developments were built with the most up-to-date building codes and fire ordinances, the buildings themselves were less prone to fire. In addition, these new metropolitan infrastructures were more equipped to handle blazes. Side yards, so common in sprawling suburbs, offered a fire break to lessen the chances of a domino effect of homes catching fire. Sparse vegetation, manicured lawns, low-density housing, and paved sidewalks and driveways also afforded fire little fuel in the event of a fire.60 The reduced risk prompted insurance companies to bundle protection and offer homeowner’s insurance for the first time in 1950. Banks, especially those funding the mortgages subsidized by the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (known as the GI Bill) and the Federal Housing Authority after World War II, welcomed these multi-hazard policies as ways to protect lenders as well as homeowners.61 Initially, fire risk in the suburbs was relatively low, and when fires erupted, they tended to remain isolated to one building. As suburbs extended into wooded and fire-prone habitats, however, urban and suburban fire mixed with wildfire in a deadly combination. During Christmas week of 1956, a wall of fire consumed twenty-six thousand acres and more than one hundred homes in Malibu. Because of the rural and urban location of the Malibu fire, resources and agencies from the municipal, county, state, and federal levels became embroiled in the fire suppression. Historian Stephen Pyne argues that the 1956 Malibu fire “effectively symbolized the transition from backcountry to mass fire, from the problems of fire in the hinterlands to those along the newly fashioned boundary of wildland and suburb.”62 Fire became the norm in Malibu, as seen in this spatial history of Malibu’s fire, inspiring journalist Mike Davis to famously argue that Los Angeles officials should let Malibu burn, rather than expend resources to fight the unending fire threat.63 Insurance companies, by covering the imminent threat of fire in the Santa Monica mountains, simply incentivized homeowners to build and rebuild in the fire-prone ecology.

The Persistent Problem of Urban Fire

While the destruction of entire neighborhoods from fire became less common in the second half of the 20th century, in the 21st century there was an increase in urban conflagrations. The 2001 fires at the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City certainly helped bring media focus back to the work of firefighters.64 That ignition point, however, was an anomaly in the recent history of urban conflagrations. What has caused this increase even though fire codes are in place and the use of highly flammable materials in new construction has been restricted? American cities became flammable again because of a lack of affordable housing and climate change.65 Take, for instance, the economic crisis that prompted the rise of homelessness in the United States after the year 2000.66 Makeshift encampments constructed of wood and cardboard that used open flames to provide heat to stay warm and cook food created dangerous scenarios that increased fire risks in cities. Insurance companies canceled homeowner’s policies if they lived near homeless encampments because of the risk of fire.67 California’s affordable housing crisis has fueled the fire crisis, because residents can no longer afford the high cost of living in expensive urban areas. In contrast to the Malibu millionaires who carefully curated their lifestyles in the idyllic mountains outside of Los Angeles, working-class residents were priced out of cities and forced to live in fire-prone exurban areas. The Tubbs (2017), Camp (2018), and Kincade (2019) fires in Northern California started as wildfires, but the high winds and dry grasses helped the fires quickly incinerate many exurban homes and make their way to urban settings.68 Wildfire provided the ignition, but fire needs fuel to expand and survive. Cities easily provided that fuel, which made urban-wild fire combination so deadly and transformative. Suburban developments were once seen as a suitable arrangement to stop a fire from spreading because of low-density housing, fire gaps, and relatively new infrastructure and building codes. However, with the growing number of extreme weather events, suburban developments no longer mean decreased fire risk because “climate change acts as a performance enhancer” making fires bigger and less manageable.69 A common thread through fire history since 1850 that will persist in the future is that the poor and disempowered will remain most vulnerable to this risk.

Discussion of the Literature

The history of fire is fundamental to understanding urban America, yet few historians refer to themselves as fire historians. Historian Stephen Pyne has become synonymous with the term fire history. Pyne himself pondered the question of why fire history has not become a more popular field of study, questioning if he had something to do with that given that “from an early stage one author, without successor students, has dominated the topic with a suite of volumes not easily slotted into existing historiography?”70 Why bemoan not easily fitting into existing historiography, when doing so would significantly limit the audience? Perhaps the upside of such a diverse field without strict scholarly parameters is that it has limitless possibilities. Beginning a research project on fire history, one could find themselves steeped in research about the history of cities, labor, politics, social unrest, environment, business, and technology, or dozens of other fields of inquiry.

The historiographical contours of fire history have mimicked larger trends in social, cultural, and environmental history. Major citywide conflagrations have always received scholarly attention, and usually within a year or two of a major fire, local historians wrote books or articles for their city or state’s historical quarterlies. With the rise of social history in the 1960s, historians turned their attention to well-known fire stories but asked different questions about class relations and power dynamics.71 During the cultural turn, historians used the methods of folklorists and ethnographers to reevaluate well-researched stories of great fires, and in 1992 Margaret Hindle Hazen and Robert Hazen wrote an ambitious book arguing that fire was the chief agent for cultural change in American history.72 Historian Amy Greenberg used gender analysis to reexamine volunteer brigades, arguing that they were “classless masculine culture.”73 More recently, environmental histories, beginning with Pyne and his often-cited “Firestick History” that put fire on the minds of environmental historians, have taken ecological considerations seriously in their analysis of urban fires.74

Fire history has found a natural home in urban history and has been both central and tangential to many topics that interest urban historians. In terms of the general layout and infrastructure that makes cities function, fire protection devices like hydrants, extinguishers, and sprinklers are ubiquitous but seemingly invisible until they are needed to put out fires, making fire fit well in the history of technology.75 Joel Tarr, David Goodman, and Thomas Finholt have documented the importance of communication technology in firefighting.76 Ever-evolving technology and protection require tax dollars and city budgets to pay for the vital infrastructure, underwriters, and pensions. Labor history, as concerned with volunteer and professional fire companies, has always been of interest to local historians, but only recently have historians addressed the experiences of women and people of color in the brigades.77 Mark Tebeau provides the most comprehensive history of firefighting in cities from 1800 to 1950 by juxtaposing the work of firefighters and underwriters, effortlessly blending labor and business history.78

Disaster studies in general, and fire history in particular, offer social historians a way to expose urban dynamics before and after catastrophes hit. Histories of “great” fires do this particularly well because they take one significant event that affects an entire community and examine how rebuilding efforts often mimicked existing social and political structures. Christine Meisner Rosen’s work on the great fires in Chicago (1871), Boston (1871), and Baltimore (1904), and Karen Sawislak’s treatment of the great Chicago fire highlight social and economic disparity and how protection and relief are not always distributed equally.79 Much of this literature examines the sensational and grandiose disasters while ignoring the grinding, debilitating, toxic environments where disenfranchised populations reside. Rob Nixon’s concept of “slow violence” and Greg Bankoff’s idea of “cultures of disaster” challenge historians to step outside of the big disaster paradigm and instead look at the small, everyday disasters that disproportionately affect those on low-incomes and people of color.80

Since the development of the field of urban-environmental history in the 1980s, historians have explored ongoing questions about fire’s uncomfortable space as both natural and human-made. Non-human forces like drought, wind, and lightning, the forces that environmental historians examine so well in their quest to show nature’s agency in history, have certainly affected urban conflagrations. But human considerations like architectural styles, urban infrastructure, or preexisting poverty are what imbue fire with exceedingly dangerous characteristics. Recently, Joanna Dyl revisited the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire from an environmental lens and questioned San Franciscans’ supposed mastery of nature, arguing that the worst destruction occurred in terrain that was severely altered by humans. The concepts of environmental justice and disaster capitalism are useful frameworks to understand how environmental benefits and risks were not fairly distributed, and how some exploit disasters for profit.81

The history of fire is fundamental to understanding urban America. Few historians, however, discuss fire in general textbooks about US history. Joanna Dyl hypothesizes that “the relative absence of disasters from historical narratives reflects the ways in which disasters have been understood as departures from history—breaks in the normal order of things—rather than as integral to human history.”82 But fire is human history, because harnessing fire is what made us human in the first place.83

Primary Sources

In Eating Smoke, Mark Tebeau provides an excellent and comprehensive “Essay on Sources” that details archives and manuscript collections about firefighting and fire insurance in the United States, albeit with some emphasis on sources in Philadelphia and St. Louis.84 When exploring the impact of fire in particular cities, the best place to start is to visit local historical societies and city archives that usually house municipal publications, reports, and pamphlets about firefighting and fire infrastructure. Temple University in Philadelphia houses the records from the International Association of Fire Fighters from 1915 to 1980, which includes documents like financial reports, maps, and newsletters. Similarly, the National Fire Protection Association, founded in 1896, offers a research library and archive that holds documents about the organization. Additionally, there are several fire-oriented magazines and periodicals, including The Fireman’s Herald, The Fireman’s Journal, Fire and Water, and Fire and Water Engineering. In the early 21st century nearly two hundred fire museums exist throughout the United States and Canada that have curated collections of artifacts like fire engines, uniforms, and other firefighting paraphernalia; a non-profit group called the fire museum network helps these museums stay connected and has sponsored a fire museum seminar since 1989. Furthermore, the Library of Congress houses more than eighteen thousand Sanborn Fire Insurance maps detailing information about cities’ fire departments, water resources, and sites of potential fire risk.

When researching specific fires, historical newspapers and periodicals offer glimpses into the reactions of survivors and victims by regularly reported on both big and small fires afflicting cities. For cities struck by major conflagrations, their municipal or university archives tend to hold extensive collections of materials. For materials about the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the Illinois Regional Archives Depository houses the Chicago Fire Department Collection, 1850s-1980s, and the Chicago History Museum has collected paintings, stories, and poetry from eyewitnesses. The Boston Fire Historical Society not only houses information about the great 1872 fire, including a collection of stereoviews of the ruins, but it has curated newspaper articles about fire from 1872 to 1925 and ephemera from the Cocoanut Grove Fire of 1942. For the 1904 Great Baltimore Fire, the Maryland Historical Society and the Enoch Pratt Free Library of the City of Baltimore have photograph collections of the aftermath of the blaze. The Seattle Municipal archives houses various petitions and correspondence to municipal authorities from concerned residents after the 1889 fire there. The National Archives-Pacific Region in San Francisco holds letters, meeting minutes, engineering reports, and photographs of the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906.

When examining more recent fire-related phenomena like arson, reports from police departments; investigations by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives; and oral histories have helped piece together the story of arson in cities. Fordham University’s Bronx African American History Project (BAAHP) has over three hundred interviews from Bronx residents documenting experiences from the 1930s, many of which discuss the wave of arson in the 1970s. Nonetheless, the role of arson in the development of American cities at any point in the last two centuries needs further exploration.

Further Reading

  • Chetkovich, Carol. Real Heat: Gender and Race in the Urban Fire Service. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997.
  • Davis, Mike. “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn.” Environmental History Review 19, no. 2 (1995): 1–36.
  • Dyl, Joanna. Seismic City: An Environmental History of San Francisco’s 1906 Earthquake. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017.
  • Gee, Alastair, and Dani Anguiano. Fire in Paradise: An American Tragedy. New York: W. W. Norton, 2020.
  • Goldberg, David A. Black Firefighters and the FDNY: The Struggle for Jobs, Justice, and Equity in New York City; Justice, Power, and Politics. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017.
  • Greenberg, Amy. Cause for Alarm: The Volunteer Fire Department in the 19th Century City. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.
  • Hindle Hazen, Margaret, and Robert Hazen. Keepers of the Flame: The Role of Fire in American Culture, 1775–1925. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.
  • Kerr, Daniel. “Who Burned Cleveland, Ohio? The Forgotten Fires of the 1970s.” In Flammable Cities: Urban Conflagrations and the Making of the Modern World. Edited by Greg Bankoff, Uwe Lübken, and Jordan Sand, 332–352. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012.
  • McWilliams, John C. “‘Men of Colour’: Race, Riots, and Black Firefighters’ Struggle for Equality from the AFA to the Valiants.” Journal of Social History 41, no. 1 (2007): 105–125.
  • Pyne, Stephen J. Fire: A Brief History. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001.
  • Pyne, Stephen J. Year of the Fires: The Story of the Great Fires of 1910. New York: Viking, 2001.
  • Rosen, Christine Meisner. The Limits of Power: Great Fires and the Process of City Growth in America. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
  • Sawislak, Karen. Smoldering City: Chicagoans and the Great Fire, 1871–1874. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
  • Tarr, Joel, David Goodman, and Thomas Finholt. “The City and the Telegraph: Urban Telecommunications in the Pre-Telephone Era.” Journal of Urban History 14, no. 1 (1987): 38–80.
  • Tebeau, Mark. Eating Smoke: Fire in Urban America, 1800–1950. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.