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Something Is Always Burning: Fire’s Role in American History


In America, fire was a deadly hazard throughout history, but it also made life better, providing warmth in winter, heat for safer cooking and more. Let’s look at how fire has played out in American history.

by David Stone

Assorted Ideas, Large & Small

Fire’s Many Roles in America

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In America, fire has always been a deadly hazard. It still is. The first Europeans who sailed across the Atlantic to the New World discovered this the hard way. In 1608, a fire started in a store in Jamestown and quickly spread to the entire colony, burning down almost everything.

Despite this, fire has also played a role in making life better — even possible — for many Americans. In wintertime, fires glow with warmth and comfort while people cook food safely in their private kitchens.

Home Safety Fire Extinguisher

Fire in America: History and How It Affected Lives

Early Europeans setting down roots in North America discovered a land covered with trees and brush that were very flammable. Knowing this, they built homes of wood, keeping them close together for protection against hostile natives.

They also used the surrounding forests as a resource for building other things, like ships, furniture and forts.

Fire was routinely used as a weapon in war. It proved a useful weapon for attacking an enemy’s supply of wood or food or a building they considered important.

In 1778, the British burned down almost all of Virginia’s statehouse in retaliation for some burning by American troops. The Americans later turned this against the British and set fire to the Canadian parliament in 1814.

A Growing Nation Has Growing Challenges

As the nation grew, so did the size of cities and towns. People began fearing fire more than ever before. Cities needed water sources nearby to fight large fires with their hoses, so Americans started building cisterns for this purpose. But after a major citywide fire in 1788, Philadelphia built a special water system that created a water supply for firefighting.

This new system also allowed firefighters to use hydrants at street corners, instead of waiting for brigades arriving with pails of water.

Slowly but surely, the nation began to improve its ways of fighting fires through both cisterns and water systems.

Fire Safety in Homes

In the meantime, more and more people realized that having a fire in one’s home was tricky to control and, as a result, unsafe. As one result, in 1835, Congress passed a law requiring all public buildings to be heated by steam instead of flames.

But the number of fires continued to grow as Americans used candles for light at nighttime and wood stoves for cooking. These buildings caught on fire easily.

Five Fire Safety Suppression Blankets

After years of huge fires in cities, Americans decided it was time to do something about this problem before it got worse. In the late 19th Century, laws were passed requiring that buildings in major cities be built with materials that would not burn as easily.

These new laws helped Americans prevent destruction by fire because buildings made with these fire-resistant materials could still stand even after being set on fire.

Fire in America Changes Venues

Today, the nation’s biggest risk of fire is in forests, where dry brush and leaves after long droughts are much more flammable. America has suffered from many major blazes, especially in California, Colorado and Oregon, but other states are also at high risk.

To prevent more large wildfires, Americans today try stopping them at the source by burning only dead vegetation and not whole trees or bushes. Controlled burns take out larger patches of flammable material. Taking these precautions reduces the risk of more destructive fires.

Residential Fires in Cities, Still Taking Lives

But residential fires, especially in crowded cities continue taking lives, often because safety rules are not followed. In 1999, a fire broke out at a Rhode Island nightclub with only a single exit, killing 100 people. In 2003, a man started his own fireworks show in his apartment and killed himself and 16 other people. And in a Bronx tragedy, this month, 19 people died because a hallway door was left open after a small fire started.

Today’s safety rules require that buildings have sprinklers and smoke detectors to stop fires from becoming deadly. But many developers of new buildings say the costs of installing safety features are too high and make new homes less affordable.

As a result, Americans continue to struggle with fire safety despite all the advancements they have made. In The Bronx, a deadly fire in 2005 killed two children and four adults because there was no smoke alarm in the house awaiting renovation.

We can do better: Simple steps for improving fire safety:

  • Make sure you have a working smoke alarm and test it regularly
  • Buy a household fire extinguisher and store it in an easily accessible place
  • Make sure all your family knows what to do in case of a fire, and practice it regularly
  • Store flammable materials in safe places and away from heat sources
  • Keep candles and matches out of reach of children and pets
  • Screen your chimney and clean it regularly to prevent fires
  • Keep a spray bottle filled with water near the stove for emergencies
  • Make sure your electrical appliances are in good condition and never overload an outlet or run an extension cord under a rug

Conclusion: Fire in American History

In America, fire has been a deadly hazard throughout history. But it also played an important role in making life better by providing warmth during the winter. And yet we still have one of the highest rates of death from fires in the world today. Rates have increased by more than 3% in the last decade. To put this into perspective, consider these statistics on how many people die each year due to residential fires alone: 3,000 deaths annually; 5% of all U.S. fatalities; more than 4x as likely to result in death or injury as any other disaster except floods. 

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