LifeSafe takes you through the worst fires in history and the lessons we have learnt from these tragedies. While the technology of fire safety is advancing, reflecting on the past can help inform innovation.
Knowledge is one of our best tools in fighting the threat of a fire, but only if we use history to teach us lessons.
This is one of the earliest disastrous fires on record. Rome is thought to be an infallible civilisation, but not even this great empire was safe from the dangers of fire.
Accounts from the historian Tacitus suggest it began on 18th July AD 64, in a section of merchant stalls near the great Circus Maximus. It was a windy night and the gales spread the flames throughout the tightly packed urban areas of Rome.
There were no open sections like temples or other large structures, that could have slowed the spread.
This led to a mass evacuation of the city, with thousands clambering to areas away from the blaze.
When the fire reached these sections, they fled to farmlands outside the city gates.
The fire raged for six days before subsiding but reignited for three days after.
The emperor Nero was accused of starting the fire to rebuild the destroyed areas in his image- a plan that led to the construction of the Golden House.
He was criticized for allowing the buildings in these quarters to be in a state of disrepair that they had no chance of withstanding the fire.
The Great Fire of London
The next fire to look at took place in the 17th century and was one of the most destructive in Britain’s history. Like many others, its origins seem fairly innocuous as it began in a small bakery on Pudding Lane in the dead of the night.
It quickly grew out of control.
At that time firebreaks were the main method of firefighting and this involved creating barriers to block the blaze through demolition.
Sir Thomas Bloodworth, the Lord Mayor of London, refused to sanction measures at the start. By the time he was willing, it was already too late.
The fire spread rapidly and covered most of the city’s districts, destroying the historic St Paul’s Cathedral in the process. It even managed to break out across the River Fleet and posed a huge threat to Whitehall and the King’s court.
Thanks to an organised firefighting effort using gunpowder provided by the Tower of London, plus the strong winds ceasing, the fire stopped.
Six deaths were recorded despite the size of the fire, though some historians dispute the number.
The true cost of the blaze came in the form of social and economic problems. There was mass destruction to properties with an estimated 80,000 people displaced.
The fire decimated London with 87 parish churches and many governmental buildings incinerated.
Thankfully there was a low death toll from the fire, but it left behind a legacy of misery that would take years to mend.
Fire of Chicago
One of the most infamous fires in history was the fire of Chicago, which began on October 8th, 1871.
The fire started beside a small barn owned by the O’Leary family. Even today, Mrs O’Leary’s cow kicking over a bucket of ashes is an urban legend in the US).
How could a small barn fire develop into something so destructive? It’s down to a combination of three key factors; a long, hot summer that led to drought, strong winds carrying the flames and the fact that wood was the primary material in most of the buildings in Chicago. This wasn’t helped by the fact that the fire department was severely underequipped to deal with it.
There were around 185 firefighters in the city and only 17 steam pumpers to help quell the flames. A catastrophic error made by one of the on-duty authorities sent the entire firefighting force to the wrong place, which cost them valuable time.
The effects were devastating and left a trail of destruction in the aftermath. Reports suggest that over 17,000 buildings were destroyed, spread across 2,000 acres of land.
The human cost was huge too; 300 people were lost to the fire. All of this happened in just under 30 hours, which shows how awful these incidents can be if not dealt with quickly and efficiently.
Modern Solutions for Fires
City-wide blazes are a rare occurrence but catastrophes still happen today.
Recent tragedies include the horrors of Grenfell, raging wildfires in California, and a double travesty in Lebanon with the Beirut explosion and the worst wildfires in decades; sombre reminders of devastating blazes.
The LifeSafe ethos is protecting life and property by providing safe, affordable solutions to stop fires before they cause harm.
We developed the Stay Safe 5-in-1 Fire Extinguisher, which is an aerosol extinguisher that contains just 200ml of liquid. As a result, it is lightweight and portable to fit in most kitchen draws, cabinets, and even your car’s glovebox.
It utilises LifeSafe's patented formula, which is one of the eco-friendliest extinguishing solutions available on the market. They won’t leave any toxic residue and there is little in the way of waste to clean up.