The history of fire is as old as the history of human civilization There is nothing that contributed more than fire towards the development of human civilization, and equally true is the fact that there is nothing that devastated it more than fire. Fire had been an icon of joy in the form of the ancient bonfire and modern fireworks. Fire, on the other hand, had been the tool of torture in history like burning at the stake and an icon of destruction in the form of nuclear devices. Homo erectus, the early human beings, were the first to harness fire about a million years ago. In spite of the availability of the advanced fire-fighting systems, fires have very often gone out of control,almost all over the globe in almost all phases of history. Human beings had taken so long to harness fire and even longer to explore it to its fullest potentials. Having known that, an enormous quantity of the firepower in different forms had been stored,so that it may be unleashed when required as it was unleashed by America on Japan.
1. The Great Fire of Rome
The Great Fire of Rome, known in Latin as Magnum Incendium Romae, started on July 19, 64 AD and continued burning for 6 consecutive days. It burned 10 of the 14 districts causing huge losses of life and property. According to Cassius Dio, Nero, the Emperor of Rome, was playing the lyre singing the epic poem ‘Sack of Ilium’ when the fire broke out. Another historian, Tacitus, negated it and stated that Nero hurried to site and organized the firefighting efforts. He opened the doors of his palace for the needy. The cause of the fire was not known exactly; therefore, different conspiracy theories emerged. According to one theory, it was an accident, while another opinion was that Nero wanted to redesign Rome; therefore, on account his whims, he orchestrated the act. Some people said that Christians set the city on fire, and they confessed it. Christians, on the charges of setting Rome on fire, were killed by torturous deaths. Many are of the opinion that the confessions were extracted by torture.
2. The Great Fire of London
The Great Fire of London started at the Bakery of Thomas Farriner on September 2, 1666 and continued until September 5, 1666. Fire breaking through the demolition was delayed due to the indecision of the Lord Mayor of London, Sir Thomas Bloodworth. The fire devastated the Medieval city of London inside the old Roman city wall. The fire destroyed 13,200 houses, 87 churches, and St. Paul’s Cathedral. Only very few casualties had been reported, which in view of the magnitude of the fire, seems to be simply unbelievable. One view is that the death toll of only the elite class was reported while no mention was made of the deaths of the common people.
3. The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906
The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 brought the worst natural disaster in American history. It was more disastrous than the Galveston hurricane of 1900 and Hurricane Katrina of 2005. An earthquake shook the coast of Northern California at 5:12 a.m. on April 18, 1906. Immediately following it, huge fires broke out simultaneously at various locations. More than 3,000 people died on account of the earthquake and fire. Almost 80 percent of San Francisco was destroyed, and more than 250,000 people were left homeless. Cost of the damage was estimated as U.S. $400 million. For fear of hurting the real estate prices, only 375 deaths against the actual 3,000 causalities were initially reported by the government officials.
4. The Great Fire of Moscow
The great fire of Moscow broke out in 1547 in the time of Ivan IV., the first Tsar of Russia. Areas of Moscow with wooden construction were destroyed. The fire spread to the Kremlin, and many ammunition stores of the Kremlin Towers caught fire and added to the resulting misery. More than 3,000 people were killed, and many were left homeless. Poverty followed the destruction. A rebellion started, and Yuri Glinski was stoned to death. The tsar’s grandmother was accused of sorcery for setting Moscow and the Kremlin on fire. The rebellious mob demanded her head, but the young tsar did not accept their demands.
5. The Great Fire of New York
On the night of September 21, 1776 a big fire broke out on the western side of New York City. The city was under occupation by the British forces during the American Revolutionary War. About 25 percent of the city was destroyed. The parts of the city which were safe from fire were subjected to the worst type of looting. General Howe considered it a deliberate act on the part of the revolutionaries and reported to London that ‘a most horrid attempt was made by a number of wretches to burn the town.’ Many residents of New York considered it a deliberate act of the British forces in order to create an opportunity for plundering.
6. The Great Salem Fire
On June 25, 1914, at 1:37 p.m. a fire incident was reported in the Koran Leather Factory at 57 Boston Street in Salem. The police acted promptly, and 90 firefighters, assisted by many residents, finally succeeded in putting out the fire. The fire started when a mixture of acetone, alcohol, and celluloid exploded causing a series of fires. The fire spread very quickly and engulfed a large area of Salem. As many as 1,376 buildings were totally destroyed. All the Elm trees lining Lafayette Street, the longest in the city, caught fire and were burnt to ashes. However, Chestnut Street and Salem City Hall survived. The fire burned 253 acres of land and caused a total loss of U.S. $15 million. A few lost their lives, and more than 20,000 people were left homeless.
7. The Changsha Fire
Changsha is one of the most devastated cities during the Second World War and stands in the records of Stalingrad, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. The fire that caused unparalleled damage broke out in 1938 during the Second Sino-Japanese War. It was not an accidental fire but the outcome of a well-thought-out plan. Chiang Kai-Shek was not confident for holding the city; therefore, he decided to burn it. A team was assigned the task and was sent to each corner of the city. On November 13, 1938, after hearing the signal fire from the top of the Tianxin building in Changsha, the team set the fires and burned the city. More than 3,000 people were killed and 56,000 buildings were burned causing losses exceeding U.S. $1 billion.
8. The Kassel World War II bombings
Kassel was the headquarters of the German Wehrkreis IX and a local sub-camp of the Dachau Concentration Camp during the Second World War. The camp provided forced labor for the German Army. The Allied forces air raided the German town with the intent to demoralize the civilian population and to weaken their will to fight. The fire that broke out in consequence of the Allied air raids continued burning the city for 7 continuous days killing over 10,000 residents with the displacement of 150,000 inhabitants. More than 90 percent of the downtown area was completely destroyed.
9. The Fire of Dresden
The fire that broke out after the air raid of the Allied forces on Dresden was one of the deadliest fires in history. From February 13 to 15, 1945 an enormous Air Force comprised of 722 heavy bombers of the British Royal Air Force dropped about 4,000 tons of explosive bombs and incendiary devices on the city of Dresden causing the death of more than 24,000 residents. Fifteen square miles of the city’s center was completely destroyed. The U.S. Air Force defended the brutal killing of the civilian population on the pretext of Dresden being an industrial and military target.
10. The Atomic Bombings of Japan
On August 6, 1945, the U.S. dropped the atom bomb ‘Little Boy’ on Hiroshima and dropped another atom bomb ‘Fat Man’ on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. It was the first and only atomic attack in history. An unimaginable loss of life and property resulted from the fires that broke out and on account of other repercussions of the atomic bombing. About one million people in each city were killed. The U.S. defended and justified its actions.
Unlike their ancestors, the big task ahead of human beings is not to explore and create fire but to discover the means of restraint from its use and keep the nukes unused as long as possible. The new form of fire has a great power of deterrence keeping the arch enemies of the world at an arm’s distance at least. Yet what lies ahead is not known with a fair degree of predictability.