Monday, October 11, 2010

The Great Chicago Fire

The Randolf Street Bridge
I have always found the description of travesties as being "great" somewhat perplexing.  How can it be great that 300 people died, or 100,000 lost their homes?  How can a war be great?  How can something so horrible be terrific (horrible + terrific = horrific)?

While many of us this past weekend were celebrating the fact that Europe and the United States shared the same date (10/10/10), others were celebrating the anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire.

On Sunday, October 8, 1871 behind the home of Patrick and Catherine O'Leary, a small fire started in a barn or shed.  Unlike in today's litigious climate, Mrs.O'Leary and her poor cow got exonerated from starting the blaze because of evidence that clearly pointed to other problems.
  • The firemen were exhausted from fighting a planing mill fire the night before.
  • The equipment was in poor shape as well.
  • The fire department watchman called out the wrong location (firebox), sending fire crews the wrong way.
  • Upon noticing his error, the watchman called for another box (still not entirely correct), but the telegraph operator (dispatch) didn't want to sound another alarm and confuse firefighters.
  • A vigilant neighbor noticed the fire and ran to the closest fire alarm, but the owner of the alarm refused to sound it and prevented the neighbor from sounding it.
All of these systematic errors were more of a cause to the Great Chicago Fire than the original flames in the barn.

Codes and Standards
The main reason the fire spread so rapidly was because, at the time, Chicago was a city built out of wood.  Normally that would not be so bad, but due to the drought conditions at the time, the entire city was exceptionally combustible.  If the city had better building codes and standards in place at the time, there would most likely have been fire-stops in place.  We can compare that to recent tragedies: a 7.0 earthquake in Haiti and an 8.8 earthquake in Chile.

In Haiti: 230,000 died; 300,000 injured; and 1,000,000 made homeless (source).
In Chile: 521 died (source).
So how come so many more people died in the Haiti earthquake even though it was not as severe as the Chilean earthquake?  Answer: Chile buildings were designed and constructed using better codes and standards.

And Chile's could have been even less devastating but they didn't follow all the codes and standards because they recently opted to shortcut the standards in order to improve their economy using less than ideal materials and methods.  All the more reason codes and standards exist, and why licensed professionals need to be in charge of protecting the public safety.  Taking shortcuts or revising standards to make economical short-terms gains only results in long-term cost.

Beauty in the Decay
Amazing things happen in nature.  Lightening strikes sand and creates unique glass sculptures.  Fire softens glass and molds marbles together.
Glass Marbles
Or welds metals.
Metal Files

What happens after a disaster is often the determination for it becoming great.  There is nothing great about war, but what happened after the Great War is nothing short of extraordinary.  The same can also be said about the rebuilding of Chicago from its ashes.

Business started cropping up within a couple days after the fire was out.
Rubble was swept away and piled up.  Much of it pushed into the lake, creating new real estate.
"World's Busiest Intersection" Corner of State and Madison
And it figures, the first store to reopen in the Burnt District was smoke shop - Schock, Bigford & Company, selling cigars, tobacco, grapes, apples, and cider out of a wood box with a broadsign in front.

Had the fire not destroyed four square miles in the heart of Chicago, the city would have been long delayed in modernizing.  Upon rebuilding, Chicago started using better materials and new technologies which allowed them to grow up, not just out.  New safety brakes on elevators meant the first sky scrapers entered the Chicago skyline.  Numerous other advancements occurred during the rebuilding phase that could not have happened if the old buildings had to first be torn down.  Which politician is going to force people from their homes?  I know that when I play SimCity and need to revitalize some neighborhoods, it is much easier for me to decrease funding to fire departments and call forth an alien invasion than it is to bulldoze the area.  Look at the aging infrastructure of the United States and the cost to dismantle it before we can build new.  Look at updated infrastructures of war-torn areas that would otherwise not be modernized.  The disaster itself is not great, but what comes after often is.
View from Water Tower looking North
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