August 1917 Fires

Issue 8 and Volume 12.

August 4, 1917: Henderson, Kentucky: One of the largest grain elevators in Western Kentucky was practically destroyed by fire despite having a sprinkler system. The four-story mill was constructed of brick and wood and metal covered. The fire started in the first floor near the boiler room and was discovered by a watchman at 6:05 p.m. There was, however, a 10-minute delay in notifying the fire department. Thirteen firefighters, under the command of Chief Burch, arrived to find heavy fire on the first and second floors. The firefighters had water problems with the city main and had to use the plant’s hydrant system to feed their Seagrave triple-combination pumping engine. Two thousand feet of hose were stretched and fed one pumper and three hydrant streams. The main building was lost, but surrounding structures were saved.

August 5, 1917: Thessaloniki, Greece: A spark from a kitchen fire fell into a pile of straw inside a small house being used by refugees at Olympiados 3, in the Mevlane district. Because of lack of water and local indifference, the flames were ignored. Soon, strong winds spread the fire to neighboring houses. Now strengthened, the flames moved through the central part of the city. With no organized governmental fire brigade, the few firefighting teams that covered insurance subscribers were quickly overwhelmed. With the city at the height of a summer drought and the little available water supply being controlled by Allied military forces, firefighting efforts were ineffective. French soldiers attempted to create a firebreak by exploding several houses. This operation was soon abandoned as the fire grew in intensity. The following morning, two British fire engines made a stand and protected the White Tower, while French soldiers saved the customs house. The fire destroyed about 32 percent of the city, about one square kilometer, and left 73,000 people homeless.

August 13, 1917: Sumpter, Oregon: This gold boomtown started back in 1862 and by 1900 was the richest gold-producing area in the country. The remote town soon earned the nickname the “Queen City” and continued growing, including the development of several brick buildings and streets covered with wooden planks. On this day, a kitchen fire in the Capital Hotel quickly spread throughout the building. The flames soon began to extend to the adjacent wooden buildings, and the flames, fanned by dry winds, jumped from street to street. Firefighters were hard pressed to make any headway against the flames when even the street was on fire. In just three hours, all the buildings in the business district were in ruins and 60 homes were destroyed. The depot, the hospital, the school, and several homes were saved.

August 25, 1917: Boston, Massachusetts: A fire ignited by spontaneous combustion started among stores of cotton and wool on the sixth floor of one of six adjoining warehouses in South Boston. The flames had developed considerable headway before being spotted by a passerby who turned in the alarm. On arrival at 8:33 a.m., Acting Deputy Chief S.J. Ryder found a heavy body of fire burning on the sixth floor of two of the buildings designated as numbers five and six. The fire had spread to the adjoining building through open fire doors. Realizing the nature of the burning materials, he immediately transmitted a third alarm. The first-alarm units – four first size engines, a fireboat, two 85-foot ladder trucks, a water tower, and two chemical engines – went to work. Aerials were raised, and roof ventilation was immediately started as hose streams were directed from the waterside. The water tower was raised and awaiting water from the fireboat, as the remaining apparatus was positioned to use deck guns to be supplied by incoming multiple-alarm units. The operating forces were faced with thick smoke laced with ammonia gases generated by the burning of heavy grease wool. Nozzle teams suffering the effects of this smoke were rotated quickly. Among the appliances and methods of attack used at this difficult and complicated fire, the Bresnan nozzle was very effective, according to the chief’s report. The five distributor nozzles deployed worked “with splendid success, getting at the heart of the fire.” In all, 12 engine streams were developed. The total response to the fire was 12 engine companies, three fireboats, five trucks, three towers, two chemical engines, and three fuel wagons. The fire was battled by 165 firefighters for three and a half hours.