There is one basic element of nature that we always avoid to fool around with. Yes, we are taking about fire. Why is that? Because fire always feeds itself and it is easy that it spreads in just a few seconds if we don’t know how to control it. If you have heard about the fire triangle, you probably know the elements needed to cause a fire: fuel, oxygen and heat. This simple equation has resulted in devastating catastrophes in the past. In this article, we would like all of us to look look to the past and learn from the mistakes made regarding fire safety so we won’t repeat them in future.

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A glimpse into the past: the 3 major fires in history

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Looking back in time, there are many historical moments when fire played the leading role. In fact, at some point in history, most of the major cities in the world have experienced big fires. Sometimes they were caused by wars, because of an unfortunate coincidence, or provoked in benefit of someone. Let’s see what the top 3 major fires in history are.

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1. The Royal Library of Alexandria

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The Royal Library of Alexandria in Egypt was founded by Dementrio de Falero at the beginning of the III century BC. The library was divided in four areas: Literature, Mathematics, Astronomy and Medicine. It was formed by different buildings and papyrus books, classrooms and gardens.

Nobody certainly knows the period in history when Egypt went up in flames, but modern society can feel the consequences and importance of the information & knowledge lost in the fire of the Royal Library of Alexandria. In fact, the library was the largest and the most important one in the ancient world.

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major fires in history

The Burning of the Library at Alexandria in 391 AD, an illustration from ‘Hutchinsons History of the Nations’, c. 1910

The are different stories of what happened and there are also different suspects. May the Muslims in their conquest have done it in the year 642 trying to preserve the Coran laws; May Julius Caesar be the main culprit (he was said to have destroyed the library by accident or trying to frustrate his enemies); May the Christians have provoked it in the year 391 under Teodosio’s mandate or may have been the three of them in different periods of time who destroyed what should have been our legacy, but the truth is that the fire destroyed all these writings and useful knowledge.

The fire of the Royal Library of Alexandria is known as one of the biggest catastrophes of Western culture as in that fire an uncountable amount of artworks were lost. It’s estimated that the library contained 42.800 rolls of papyrus. For your information, the size of a roll of papyrus is more or less the length of 20 sheets, the average sheet being 30cm high and 20cm wide. Nowadays, the Royal Library of Alexandria has been rebuilt by UNESCO. The brand new library was inaugurated on 16th October 2002 as an international centre of communication and exchange of human knowledge.

major fires in history

By David Lisbona from Haifa, Israel (Main reading hall in the new Alexandria library) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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2. The Great Fire of London (1666)

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The Great Fire of London is one of the major fires in history and also one of the most famous ones. Fire destroyed 80% of the city. From 2 to 5 September 1666, the city went up in flames and most part of the medieval city was destroyed. Londoners had a hot summer in 1666. London was experiencing an exceptional drought, so it makes sense that wooden buildings and houses with straw roofs caught fire easily.

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major fires in history

Lieve Verschuier [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The fire started in the Thomas Farriner bakery in Pudding Lane. Apparently, a baker forgot to switch off the oven before coming back home to rest at night. That night, citizens of London lived in a real hell on earth. The fire fed itself during the following days. The city was not prepared to face a catastrophe like this and neither was the mayor of the city Lord-Mayor Bloodworth, who was totally ineffective and did nothing to help.

13.200 houses were burnt alongside 87 parish churches, 400 streets, 15 of its 26 districts, The Royal Exchange, The Custom House, Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London City Council, The Reformatory Palace and other prisons, 4 bridges along the Thames and the Fleet river and 3 city security doors. Everything was burnt. Despite registering only 9 fatalities, we don’t know exactly how many people died. It is said that just people who could afford it boarded a ship and its little boats trying to save their lives and possessions. It is known that around 80.000 people became homeless.

Nevertheless, the fire killed the rats and fleas that had spread the bacteria that caused the plague. That way, the bubonic plague that had killed more than 65.000 people the previous year came to an end. London was rebuilt by designers and constructors who learnt from past mistakes due to the urgent demand of citizens.

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3. Chicago’s Fire (1871)

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During two days, the growing city of Chicago was set on fire. It’s considered the biggest disaster in the US history of the 19th century. In 1871, the city of Chicago was mainly built in wood. Houses, walls, doors and windows…even footpaths and paths were made of wood.

It is said that a spark born in a stable provoked the fire during the night of 8th October 1871. But no one knows for sure what really happened that night so we just can tell you about the rumours spread.

The fire was quickly out of control. Firefighters and citizens tacked it unsuccessfully. The wind was against them and fire was spreading from house to house until it reached the centre of Chicago. In the picture below, you can see the huge burned area.

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major fires in history

By 1869_chicago.jpg: davidrumsey.com.derivative work: Sémhur [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By 10th October, fire had destroyed 6,5 square miles. 300 people died and 100.000 people became homeless. More than 17.000 buildings were destroyed and the estimate of the damaged properties rose 200 million dollars. During 48 hours, Chicago was immersed in complete chaos. Strong-willed and talented architects rebuilt the city with stronger, higher, safer and luxurious buildings. With creative new ideas in mind, the brand new city of Chicago was built with skyscrapers, big horizontal windows and steel infrastructures. Today, it is a worldwide icon of modern architecture.

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There is quite a big difference between the ways we put out a fire now and the old methods, which had water buckets as the only way to extinguish a fire. Nowadays, we have different tools to face fires like foam, water and powder extinguishers for homes, businesses and even for cars. We also have very simple and cheap tools like fire blankets. But the most important thing of all: the information and knowledge we have about fire safety give us more chances to escape and prevent fires. Do you agree? Let us know your thoughts about this topic and any other fires you consider have been major catastrophes so we can discuss them and keep learning from past mistakes!

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