Urban Fire

If you go back in history, cities have routinely been burnt to the ground, mostly by humans. The Romans and the  Greeks burnt down many cities when they fell in battle. It was a way of exacting revenge on the city. In China and India, the Mongols, and the Mughals, burnt down cities routinely.

Cities have also burnt because they were built stupidly. Over the last thousand years, as cities mushroomed across the world and their populations grew significantly, building was undertaken without thought. Even as recently as 1800, there was no building code, you found an empty plot, you bought it and you built whatever you could afford to build on it.

London has a storied history of burning down. There were two major fires in 1133 and 1212. In the fire of 1212, 3000 people died on London Bridge trying to flee the city.

Lübeck, Utrecht, Bern, Amsterdam, Munich, Gouda, Moscow, Stockholm, Glasgow, Istanbul; between 1000 and 1600 many of these cities burnt partially resulting in the loss of life and property. Often the fire was caused by something stupid and innocuous and it ended up consuming vast parts of the city.

In America, New York has been the subject of many fires and none of them were weather-related.

The fire began on the evening of December 16, 1835, in a five-story warehouse at 25 Merchant Street, now known as Beaver Street, at the intersection of Hanover Street and Wall Street. As it spread, gale-force winds blowing from the northwest towards the East River spread the fire. The conflagration was visible from Philadelphia, approximately 80 miles (130 km) away.

At the time of the fire, major water sources including the East River and the Hudson River were frozen in temperatures as low as −17 °F (−27 °C). Firefighters were forced to drill holes through ice to access water, which later re-froze around the hoses and pipes. Attempts were made to deprive the fire of fuel by demolishing surrounding buildings, but at first there was insufficient gunpowder in Manhattan to use as demolition charges. Later in the evening, a detachment of U.S. Marines and sailors returned at 3 o’clock in the morning, with gunpowder from the Brooklyn Navy Yard and began to blow up buildings in the fire’s path. The Evening Post reported that “The detachment of marines from the navy yard under Lieutenant Reynolds and sailors under Captain Mix rendered the most valuable service, the gun powder brought the magazine at Red Hook was partly under their charge.”

An investigation found that a burst gas pipe which was ignited by a coal stove was the initial source; no blame was assigned.

Sources: Wikipedia

Benjamin Franklin established one of the first firefighting services in Philadelphia in the 18th century because fires used to break out so often. 

Paris was the first city to institute a building code in the 1850s. Part of the reason why most of the buildings in central Paris look uniform.

By the 1950s most countries had a building code. Building codes were introduced, and fire safety became a big thing across the world when building new buildings. Old buildings had to be brought up to meet the code. Materials began to be treated to resist fires. There was a move away from wood for building as well.

This was fixed.

By the 1990s there were only three major urban fires across the world, two of those in Japan caused by a tsunami and an earthquake; compared to 13 in the 1980s.

Then a new phenomenon started to enter the scene at the beginning of this century. Wildfires that turn into urban fires.

21st century



  • 2010 – Dhaka fire kills 117 people in the Nimtali area of Old Dhaka, Bangladesh.
  • 2012 – Hurricane Sandy caused a six-alarm fire that destroyed 121 homes in Breezy Point, Queens, New York.
  • 2013 – Yarnell Hill Fire burned over 13 square miles, destroyed over 100 homes, and killed 19 firefighters.
  • 2014 – Valparaíso wildfire devastated several areas of Valparaíso, Chile, destroying 2,500 homes and killing at least 15 people.
  • 2016 – Fort McMurray wildfire in Alberta destroyed approximately 2,400 homes and buildings, and forced a complete evacuation.
  • 2016 – The Gatlinburg Fire began as a wildfire in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and spread into the town of GatlinburgTennessee, killing 14.
  • 2017 – October 2017 Iberian wildfires. A fire started in Galicia, a province with high risk of wildfire and spread dangerously quick thanks to Hurricane Ophelia (2017) through Spain and Portugal.
  • 2017 – In October, 17 separate fires raged across five counties in Northern California, causing extensive damage in Sonoma and Napa Counties. The fires burned 160,000 acres, destroyed 5,700 buildings, and killed 43. The two largest fires were the Tubbs Fire and Atlas Fire. The city of Santa Rosa, California sustained heavy damage, with over 2,800 buildings destroyed.
  • 2018 – Camp Fire. California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire left at least 81 people dead and torched more than 152,000 acres. The fire burned through the towns of Paradise and Concow and other populated areas including Magelia, CenterVille and Butte Creek Canyons, and destroyed the historic Honey Run Covered Bridge, one of the last three-tier bridges that stood in the United States.


Source: Wikipedia

But it was not like New York or Seattle burned down. These were usually small suburban communities or even rural communities that were closer to nature and nobody cared much about them. A few hundred people lost their homes, who cares? I can guarantee you, by October Lahaina will be forgotten as well.

Why the fires?

As I mentioned in my post on the incandescent bulb, wood has a combustion temperature of 350 degrees Celsius. While ambient temperature never reaches that level, it is easy for sparks to far exceed that figure. 

Wildfires used to be caused by lightning. Not anymore. 

So then what causes the fires to start?

Mostly electricity lines. When you have dry and parched land that is being subjected to high winds, electrical lines can short and produce sparks which may be sufficient to start a fire. Alternatively, a cigarette butt that has not been put out or dry tinder coming in contact with car exhaust which can reach 260 degrees Celsius can start a fire.

This has been happening with uncanny regularity.

There is a price you pay for advancing very early.

The first Utility poles were erected in America for telegraphs back in 1844. The telegraph won the war for Abraham Lincoln. The first electric poles went up in the city of Los Angeles in 1916.


This plaque placed February 5, 1952, by the Department of Water and Power as a part of the commemoration of the 50th year of the resumption of municipal ownership under the control of the Board of Water Commissioners.

Source: Historic Markers Database

The flip side of the story is that many electric poles in America are decades old. Douglas Firs, Jack Pines, Western Red Cedar, and Pacific Silver Firs were used for setting up utility poles and many of them today are 60 to 80 years old.

Even the High Tension infrastructure often built with Iron and Steel, tends to be quite old. The first of these was set up in Germany in 1926. This ageing infrastructure is prone to failure.

And like that, we get the 1000-degree Celsius spark that starts the fire. Thanks to the generally dry air, introducing pockets of extreme heat can create a climate of its own. The small fire heats up the air which moves up and more dry air rushes in the fill the void, which at scale can become a gentle wind that pushes the fire forward. Add trade winds or other such phenomena and we get a fire that is moving at several kilometres per hour.

On the climate front let me assure you we are making zero dent.  Even if we’re to take the simplistic explanation of higher CO2 emissions leading to higher temperatures, it is all headed up!

Annual CO2 emissions worldwide

Screenshot 2023-08-20 at 12.41.38 PM.png

Source: Statista

So heat is all set to rise.

Burnt-down towns

What happened in Lahaina is just a continuation of a trend, it is not new. Only this time the target was a town which is much better known and happens to be one of the larger ones on the island. But the Urban fire is making a return this time from the wild side.

For the last few months close to 33 million acres or about the land area of Greece burnt down in wildfires across Canada. The world knows about this because there was some smoke that wafted over from the Canadian side to the North East United States. The air quality in New York was similar to that of New Delhi on any given winter day.

The fires have not been contained and now…

Officials in the Canadian province of British Columbia have implored tens of thousands of residents to heed warnings and evacuate from areas threatened by “severe and fast-changing” wildfires, and urged “irresponsible” wildfire tourists to stop flying drones in the area.

“We cannot stress strongly enough how critical it is to follow evacuation orders when they are issued,” Bowinn Ma, the province’s minister of emergency management, said on Saturday. “They are a matter of life and death not only for the people in those properties, but also for the first responders who will often go back to try to implore people to leave.”


Several towns and Indigenous communities were evacuated earlier. The exodus from Yellowknife means half the population of the near-Arctic territory has been displaced.

The ongoing fires had caused “terrible loss”, Trudeau told reporters after meeting Yellowknife evacuees on Friday as they arrived in Edmonton, Alberta, with no idea when they may return home.

Source: Guardian

This weekend, a city called Yellowknife is specifically under threat and fire has surrounded the city from all sides.

Lahaina is perhaps one of the first instances where an entire town got burnt in a matter of a few hours. A power line set off a spark that turned into a blaze. The winds were so strong that hundreds of people could not outrun it and hundreds more had to jump into the water to hold on to life.

The wildfires are turning into urban fires and coming for the cities.

During the Cold War people built bomb shelters because a bombing was considered highly likely. In this case, building a fire shelter might actually be a good idea because such large urban fires might just be inevitable.






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