Heralded as the worst conflagration to assail a city in peacetime, the 1906 San Francisco fire was responsible for the deaths of 3,000 people and the destruction of 522 city blocks, according to firefighter turned writer Dennis Smith in his new moment-by-moment chronicle of the fire, San Francisco Is Burning: The Untold Story of the 1906 Earthquake and Fires.
Smith's book argues that bureaucratic bungling allowed the fire to spread much further and wreak more havoc than it had to. Even in an age when emergency water arrived by way of horse and wagon, the fire could have been contained, Smith believes, but for gross errors in municipal leadership. Dynamite, for instance, could have been used to create fire breaks. Instead, untrained personnel blew up burning buildings, disseminating embers that started new fires nearby. Smith blames the entire destruction of Chinatown on this practice. Perhaps the most unfortunate domino in the chain of destruction was the demise of Fire Chief Dennis Sullivan, who was fatally injured in the initial earthquake. For years, Sullivan had warned his superiors in government that the availability of water for firefighting was not up to par. With water pressure low and fire wagons traveling by hoof, his department's hoses weren't even capable of watering the top floors of the emerging skyscrapers. Smith challenges the popular mythology of a runaway fire unstoppable by merely human forces. In fact, the fire spread relatively slowly, he thinks, and could have been minimized in the presence of competent leadership. Unfortunately, with the death of Sullivan, such knowledge was absent.