Research Letter 2.7

THE BIG ONES: 'Prevent, Prepare, Respond, Recover' in an historic 17th century urban fire event

The bush fires of the Christmas Eve to New Years period and beyond in New South Wales and the ACT again brought into question issues relating to, among other things: the causes of fires; fire characteristics including their rates of spread; and building location, design and construction. There has been considerable discussion of these issues in relation to the preparedness and response of emergency services. In this Research Letter, one of the frameworks of emergency service operations and analysis is illustrated: 'Prevent; Prepare; Respond; and, Recover' (or, perhaps as well as 'recover', 'Repair', 'Research' and 'Renew') - PPRR. The case history chosen very selectively sketches aspects of these phases in an historic overseas example of a Big One. While the PPRR framework can be applied, it should not be seen as the explicit approach of the relevant authorities in this example which comes mainly from the gripping book authored by N. Hanson (2001). Some of the circumstances surrounding the fire will sound familiar.

This was the scene before the fire. Drought was upon the land. Drought-killed grass crumbled beneath the feet (Hanson 2001, p.49). Laws existed requiring fire-fighting equipment to be in place (p.77) - preparedness - but fire prevention legislation had had a chequered history (p.77). Town planning and building construction issues had been addressed (p.79).

Fire broke out in the "dead hours of the night", a Saturday, yet the wind was blowing strongly (p.109). The initial fire-fighting response was inadequate to stop the spread of the flames (p.113) and the fire was soon gathered speed (p.115). Then a "blazing ember" started a spot fire about 180m ahead of the flames (p.120). Fire-fighting equipment (p.123), buildings and a life were lost (p.112). Voluntary evacuations began.

Next day, Sunday, the wind continued unabated, or even strengthened (p.129). The fire continued to spread and rumours began to circulate about the causes of the fire (p.136). Was it arson? Who was responsible? Orders were issued by the highest authority for drastic actions to be taken to stop the spread of the fire (p. 134-5) - create "firebreaks" - but they were ineffective at this stage (p.138). The fire "continued its remorseless progress throughout the day" (p.139). Spot fires continued to break out (p.139).

Monday. The "headlong rush of the fires ... continued". ".. out of the heart of this maelstrom of heat and noise and wind burst a wall of flame fifty feet [15m] high, moving as fast as a running man" (p.153) [?] but flames reached up to 30m (p.171)

Tuesday. "The gale was still blowing ... and the day again dawned hot and dry" (p.181). "The gales spread a tracery of embers .... starting a multitude of fires" (p. 186). They had now "become so fierce that the fire could make little further progress into the teeth of the wind" (p.195). "The smoke was now so dense that it even darkened the noonday sun" (p.181).

The fire continued to burn all day Wednesday but by Thursday morning spread has ceased (p.231) although pockets continued to burn for some time (p.240). Large numbers of houses were destroyed and also historic buildings and churches.

Recovery. "Plans ... were set in motion almost at once" (p.245). A survey was conducted (p.245). New laws were passed (p.247). Building began. The search for an arsonist continued; accusations were rife (pp 253ff). Parliament set up a committee to investigate the causes of the fire (p.263) and concluded that arson was likely (p.270). However, there was disagreement. One commentator suggested, among other things, that contributing factors were: time of ignition (night); time of week (Saturday night); time of year (long vacation), building construction (mainly wood), drought, wind, breakdown of water supply, unusual negligence and selfishness (pp.270-271). A suspected arsonist was taken to court (p.271), convicted and hanged (p.325), possibly in error (p.313).

This story refers to the Great Fire of London in September 1666. The area of the fire was 436 acres only - about 170 ha. - but it had burnt 13,200 houses, 87 churches and 52 "Company halls"(Weiss 1992, p.70). About 80% of ancient London had been burnt (Weiss 1992, p.70).

References:
  1. Hanson, N. (2001). The Dreadful Judgement. The True Story of the Great Fire of London. Doubleday, London.
  2. Weiss, D.A. (1992). The Great Fire of London. Cumberland Enterprises, New York.
A. Malcolm Gill
27 June 2002

Post script. Weiss (1992, p.69) noted that "Strangely, the fire had taken little toll of life" but Hanson (2001, pp. 326-333), after considerable analysis and explanation, suggested that there were hundreds, even thousands, of deaths.