Fire—An American Extravagance
F. W. Fitzpatrick in McClure’s Magazine
OF all our extravagances, and we Americans are a notably extravagant people, fire is the greatest, the most foolish, the most useless and shameful. And it has become a national habit. The story of fire is told in colossal figures. Carelessness and ignorance are the causes of incalculable wastage through this element. Gas wells are ignited and millions of feet of that precious commodity are consumed in a pyrotechnic display as needless as it is senseless ; equally gross carelessness or ignorance sets coal mines afire, fires that burn for months, destroying far greater value in the “black diamonds of commerce" than the world produces of the more beautiful but less useful white diamonds. And so with our forests. Heaven knows that our methods of lumbering are ruthless enough and that the abuse of our forests has made lumber one of our most expensive building materials—it has increased over one hundred per cent, in price in less than twenty years’ time. But added to the wasteful manner of cutting, the lack of care or even decency on the part of lumbermen and hunters has been the cause of fire’s destroying millions of dollars’ value in what is left of those precious forests every year. During this last September our forest fires in Minnesota and Michigan and Wisconsin, in the Adirondacks, in Pennsylvania and West Virginia and Ohio, everywhere—and every one preventable—laid waste an incalculable amount of marketable lumber, besides destroying many thriving villages and seriously damaging more important towns and blocking the orderly and natural course of business. The whole damage done by those fires in the month of September alone can be but roughly guessed, but at a conservative estimate it was at least $270,000,000. But in what follows let us eliminate our forest fires, mine fires, fires on board ship, and limit our attention solely to fires in buildings, fires that could so easily be prevented were it not that all our energies seem bent upon their mere extinguishment.
Those fires have cost us as many as 7,000 human lives in one year’s time, and our loss in money value, through the destruction of property, is almost as appalling. The production of gold in the entire world, something like $400,000,000 per year, would not recoup us for our losses by fire and the incidental, expenses accompanying them, in the same period of time ; the value of all the coal mined in this country in a year’s time would just cover the cost to us of our fires; the value of our lumber production is only a trifle more. We are fond of luxuries, and import a great many, yet the value of all that importation is but a fifth of our fire cost. We are great and persistent advertisers, and spend huge sums in that accessory to business, but, vast as our advertising bill is, it equals but two-fifths of our fire bill ; and all the industrial dividends paid in 1907 aggregate but threefifths of the amount of our fire extravagance.
In 1907 there were no great conflagrations ; it was what might be termed a “normal” year ; but we actually destroyed buildings, and property contained in them, to the value of $215,000,000. This figure represents total annihilation ; there was no residue, it was not money diverted into other channels, one man’s loss and another’s gain ; it stands for just plain smoke. Beyond this, we expend in the maintenance of fire departments, apparatus, high pressure systems, and all those so-called, yet often inefifective, curative agents of the evil, $300,000,000; and we further pay out another $195,000,000 in a gamble with the insurance companies, in a bet that our property will not burn. Of that last sum a scant $95,000,000 is returned in the way of paid losses. In other words, the cost of fire and its accessories, in round numbers, is just about an even $600,000,000 a year. It may be but a peculiar coincidence, or perhaps it is an unconscious economic adjustment, that with all our phenomenal growth and the tremendous boom and vast amount of building carried on in some
years, the most active year we have ever had in building construction netted just $615,000,000’s worth of new buildings and alterations during the twelve months. So that with all our vaunted activity, we produce buildings equal in money value to only a trifle more than the value of the property we destroy by fire. Worse than that, in the first month of the present year our losses by fire were over $24,000,000, and during the same time we expended but $16,000,000 in new buildings and repairs. Our average fire loss is $19,000,000 a month—a “normal” month. But the conflagration risk is such that we have “abnormal” months with startlingly normal regularity. In February of 1904, Baltimore raised that month’s figure to $90,000,000, and in April of 1905, San Francisco added $350,000,000 to the “normal” month’s loss. In five years’ time the total has been $1,257,7ï6,ooo. NO other nation on earth could stand the drain, and even we are beginning to feel it.
Apart from any incidental or accompanying expense, the cost of fire, of actual combustion and destruction of property in this country, is equivalent to a tax of $2.30 per capita per year ; in all of Europe the average corresponding tax is a trifle less than 33 cents per capita. In Italy it is 12 cents; in Germany 49 cents; in thirty foreign cities the average is 61 cents, while in two hundred and fifty-two American cities it is $3.10. We have 4.05 fires to each thousand people ; Europe has .86 fires per thousand. New York City has 12,182 fires a year, with a fire loss of $7,568,666. Her fire department costs her $10,000,000 a year, and it is estimated that the cost of public and private protection combined amounts to pretty nearly $60,000,000 a vear. Now, in all of London there are 3,843 fires in a year, and in the whole of the British kingdom in the same period there were but 35 fires of over $5o,ooo’s cost each, and the total cost of those 35 fires was but $3*785,000. Rome, a city of 500,000 people, suffers a damage of but $56,000 a year, and her fire department of two hundred men costs but another $50.000.
In Europe they have always used less combustible material in construction than have we; wood has been less plentiful than here; they are more careful, and, as a matter of fact, a fire scarcely ever goes beyond the building in which it originates, whilst
here hardly a day passes that we do not read of a file destroying two, three, twenty, forty buildings at one fell swoop. In tlie earlier times we built our better buildings, at least, in the old' European manner, with brick and stone walls and brick vaulting for floors and partitions. Of such construction is the old Treasury in Washington and buildings of that character through out the country, structures in which much damage to the contents can be done by fire, but where the buiding itself can suffer very little. As our people pushed farther away from the small original centres, “pioneered” info the interior, wood was the handiest thing to use for the more or less temporary shelters they erected, and wood construction thus began its evolution. The earl)'fathers added a touch here and another there ; later we devised what is called the “balloon” frame. Lumber was dirt cheap and abundantly plentiful, and frame building became a custom. Even where stone or brick was used in the external walls, wood was considered the only material for joists and partitions and interior finish, and even the apparently non-inflammable buildings were internally veritable tinder-boxes. Wood became one of the standard materials in construction, and our cities are now so very wooden that the fate that overtook Chicago, Baltimore, San Francisco, and a portion of Boston, will as inevitably overtake and devastate large parts of every one of our cities. In all the land there are something like 12,000,000 buildings; in barely 8,000 of that number has any attempt been made at fire prevention—the others constitute admirable material for individual fires and appalling conflagrations.
Our insurance companies have, perhaps unconsciously, been somewhat to blame for this tinder-box growth. They have advocated better construction of buildings, but have made the rates upon the indifferent structures so low as to constitute a veritable temptation to build just as shabbily as the btfilding laws and the companies themselves would permit. In San Francisco, for instance, the insurance people wrote a ridiculously low rate upon wooden construction (supposedly the only thing that would withstand an earthquake) because of the city’s admirable fire department ; it came to be one of the most inflammable cities in
the land, and when all the conditions were
favorable a historic conflagration ensued. The same thing may be expected at any time in New Orleans, in Philadelphia, or in Boston, cities of narrow streets, and most “receptively inclined” toward fire. Incidentally, it may not be amiss to mention that in the past ten years we have paid into the insurance companies’ coffers the sum of $1,610,885,242. The companies may be said to have aided and abetted us in the past to build poorly ; individual fires mean more or less profit to them, and, in fact, are necessary to keep people keyed up to a point where they feel the urgency of carrying heavy insurance. It is the big conflagrations that hurt the companies. But for these they recoup themselves quickly by increasing rates, and our rates to-day are just about twelve times higher than they are in Great Britain and twenty times higher than in Italy.
We are rather impartial as to the nature of the buildings we burn. Our average is pretty steadily 3 theatres, 3 public halis, 12 churches, 10 schools, 2 hospitals, 2 asylums, 2 colleges. 6 apartment houses, 26 hotels, 3 department stores, 2 jails, 140 flat houses, and about 1,600 homes every week in the year. We all live in buildings or spend considerable time in them, and since nearly all of those buildings are dangerous, our lives may be said to be constantly imperiled by fire. Setting aside this general imminence of danger, 36,000 human lives are in direct and grave peril every day in the year, people who narrowly escape from burning buildings, or are carried out by firemen, or jump from windows, etc. The Russo-Japanese War, in which the losses were frightful, shows no such average of lives directly exposed to destruction.
The worst thing about it is that there is such apathy in regard to fire. It is accepted as a sort of necessary evil. Yet tremendous efforts are made and vast expenses incurred in attempts to cure the evil. Our fire departments are the best in the world, and small wonder—they have so much practice that they necessarily become adept. But little by little we are awakening to the realization that cure is well-nigh impossible and have turned our attention toward prevention. It has been found to work satisfactorily in the elimination of epidemics and fevers that used to be thought almost ineradicable ; our medical men are centering their efforts upon sani-
tation and such preventive measures instead of trying to fight plagues and disease after they have taken hold.
Our people are peculiarly slow in learning such lessons. For instance, it was knowm for years that the great bulk of our theatre buildings were ramshackle affairs, possibly no worse than other buildings, but in them the danger of fire and panic was especially imminent. Well, a long list of fatalities, culminating in the holocaust of the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago, finally gave emphasis to the need of reform, and immediately there was a great scurrying, not to remedy the defects in every dangerous building, but to make theatres, particularly, safe. This was all very good, but why must intelligent people suffer a terrible catastrophe before they will take general precautions against the possibility of such an occurrence taking place? So with schools. Anything had been thought good enough for a school. There were school fires and panics and heart-breaking individual losses, but it took the Collinwood disaster to wake the nation up, and now there is a possibility that our future school buildings will be well built, or at least fairly so. But there interest will cease, and we shall have to have a terrible fire in a department store, and then in a church, and another in a hotel, to get each class of buildings properly safeguarded.
With fire it is going to be a long, hard fight. There is already so much all about us that will either have to be torn down or burned that, do what we may, it will be years before we can really enjoy immunity. But one thing we must do and at once— we must add no more fuel to burn. Good building is an economy. People fight shy of it because its first cost is perhaps ten or twelve per cent, greater than the usual shoddy construction. But taking into account maintenance, repairs, insurance premiums, longevity, etc., the well-built building actually costs less than the poor one within five years from the time of its construction, and the difference widens at a rapid ratio from then on, so that inferior construction, considered in the long run, is a rank extravagance and one that only the millionaire can afford. Instead of that, it is the millionaire who builds well, and it is the poor man who occupies the inferior and expensive building. Yet so-called cheap construction has been so dinned into us
that the moment the State attempts any reformatory movement towards better building, a howl goes up that it is going to work hardship to the poor man—the worst kind of nonsense, but one that has to be coped with, because the speculative builder, the only one benefited by shoddy construction, will disturb heaven and earth to prevent stringent building regulations from being enacted.
It is the duty of our authorities to take the matter in hand, and every right-thinking
man, property owner or not, should bestir himself to see that the authorities do take drastic action for the prevention of fire, which to-day is gnawing at the very vitals of the nation. The most stringent regulations should be enacted, positively prohibiting the use of combustible materials in the construction of any new building inside or outside the imaginary fire lines. And just as strenuous an effort should be made to compel the revamping of the existing buildings, so that they shall present the minimum of danger.