The 5 Most Infamous Fires In History

Throughout history, there have been disasters that have changed the way that we have approached fire protection. Here are five of the most infamous fires in history.

Fires can be absolutely devastating in all environments. From urban landscapes to the bush, fires can do an astonishing amount of damage, and they are indeed one of man’s greatest foes. Luckily, throughout history, practices, knowledge and technology about fire prevention have progressed remarkably. For example, in Australia today, all buildings follow a strict code that ensures maximum protection against fires – defined within the Building Code of Australia.

Implementing high-quality fire doors is also a huge part of the fire protection model that buildings abide by in Australia. FSE Special Purpose Doors are one of the country’s top manufacturers of fire doors. But to get where we are today, there needed to have been few disasters to act as the catalyst for progress and change. You can read all about the history of fire protection here, but while you’re with us, here are some of the most infamous fires in history.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire – 1911

infamous fires

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was located corner of Greene Street and Washington Place in New York City. Occupying the top three floors of a 1o storey building, the factory specialised in producing woman’s blouses. By today’s standard, working conditions were fairly rough. Troves of (mainly) immigrant women poured over textiles for 14-hours a day, working for a measly wage of about $7 a week.

Unsurprisingly, safety standards in the building were minimal. Mounds of flammable textiles littered the building. Ventilation was poor, fire exits were basically non-existent, and the only active “fire safety” equipment insight were buckets of water placed throughout the building. Workers would smoke at their stations and often thrown their butts amongst flammable scraps, and if ever a fire sparked, it was extinguished quickly with the buckets.

On March 25th, 1911, a fire tore through the building, ravaging the upper floors. Some of those close to the roof could escape via a makeshift walkway to neighbouring buildings and the fire escapes, but many weren’t so lucky. Nevertheless, the tragic event was the impetus for an investigation, and, subsequently, 36 new laws were enacted to reform the state labour code. Plus, a Fire Prevention division was added to the city’s fire department.

The Great Chicago Fire – 1871

Infamous fires

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 was one of the most vicious infernos to ravage a major city. As the papers told it, a cow belonging to a local poor woman kicked over a lantern which sparked the blaze. However, there is no actual evidence to support this story. Instead, what researchers and historians believe happened was that a young transient staying in a barn on the O’Leary property at 137 DeKoven Street started the fire, most likely by accident.

The inferno spread slowly but surely, destroying over 17,000 structures throughout the city and leaving more than 90,000 people without homes. Luckily few people died as a direct result of the fire. However, this was little consolation for those who had to live out the long winter ahead without shelter. Nevertheless, the great blaze leads to many reforms which would see the city’s firefighters become renowned as some of the best in the world. Other great cities would go on to model theirs off Chicago’s.

The Great Fire of Rome – 64 AD

Infamous fires

The earliest relics of ancient fire protection engineering on a mass scale can be traced back to the Romans’ tyrannical Emperor Nero. The Great Fire of Rome was an urban fire that started on the 18th of July in 64 AD. The blaze tore through the city for six days before it was finally brought under control, but not before causing widespread devastation across the city.

Although there are varying accounts of who actually started the fire, it is commonly agreed that it began in the Circus neighbouring the Caelian and Palatine Hills of Rome. The windy night caused the flames to spread quickly, and in this lower area of ancient Rome, there were no larger buildings to impede the conflagration. Instead, the neighbourhood was packed tightly with apartment blocks, and it soon spread along the Palatine and Caelian slopes before progressing through the city.

After the damage was done, Nero ordered a complete rebuild of the city utilising passive protection methods and the fortification of the city’s external walls. This is the first recorded instance of large scale engineering with the sole purpose of fire protection, one that would be replicated time and time again, but not until many years later.

The Great Kantō earthquake fire – 1923

Infamous fires

Like many other great fires in history, the blaze that destroyed Tokyo in 1923 was caused by an earthquake. The Great Kantō earthquake struck the Kantō Plain on the Japanese main island in September 1923. The magnitude 7.9 quake lasted for over 4 minutes and shockwaves devastated all within range, including neighbouring Tokyo. As a result of the calamity, fires ravaged Tokyo. An estimated 140,000 perished as a result of the event.

A few factors contributed to such a widespread and devastating blaze. First of all, the earthquake hit during lunchtime, meaning that many small flames were burning throughout the city, which soon conflagrated, turning into a much larger blaze. Secondly, typhoons as a result of the earthquake resulted in extremely high winds throughout the city. These winds turned into firestorms that desolated the city.

The damage from the earthquake and subsequent fire was the greatest sustained by prewar Japan. Therefore, in 1960, the government declared September 1, the anniversary of the quake, as the annual “Disaster Prevention Day”.

The Great Fire of London – 1666

infamous fires

In 1666, The Great Fire of London tore through the city, destroying 80 per cent of buildings after burning for four consecutive days. It all started as a small blaze in a Pudding Lane bakeshop. Unfortunately, most of London was comprised of dangerously flammable wooden houses, and it didn’t take long for the flames to spread. Strong winds blew sparks to neighbouring wharves containing combustibles like hemp, oil, tallow, hay, timber, coal and spirits, and local firefighters has little luck containing the flames with pails of water from the river.

For the next three days, the fire crawled throughout the city. Officials attempted to stem the blaze by destroying structures using fire breaks but were largely unsuccessful. Only when the Duke of York had ordered the Paper House to be demolished to create a break that the fire finally died down.

Although the death count was minimal, the property loss was staggering. 80 per cent of the city was destroyed, including 13,000 houses, 89 churches, and 52 Guild Halls – needless to say, it changed the city forever.

In response, The City of London adopted its first building regulations requiring stone and brick houses with fire-resisting party wall separations. Main streets were also to be widened to prevent fire spread, and narrow alleyways that snaked through the city were all but eliminated. In the following years, similar changes were seen throughout Europe. Interest in fire protection apparatus also grew, including fire suppression equipment in the form of a hand-pumped apparatus – also known as a fire extinguisher.

Hopefully, you will never need them, but for enquiries or assistance about fire doors for your building, please contact FSE Special Purpose Doors at [email protected] or call +61 2 9905 8222. We supply and deliver fire doors to Sydney and throughout Australia.

Learn some more about the world of fire doors below:

How To Spot A Fire Door Quickly

All Your Fire Door Questions Answered

All About Special Purpose Doors