09
May
12

CBR4 #20: San Francisco Is Burning: The Untold Story of the 1906 Earthquake and Fires by Dennis Smith

In 1906, a massive earthquake struck the young city of San Francisco. While still suffering the aftershocks of the quake, fires broke out in several locations. Due to poor preparation and some very poor decision-making by those in authority, the fires would grow and rage out of control for days, destroying large swaths of the coastal city.

This book did a great job of explaining the events that led to the fires, as well as the context of how the city functioned at the time. Corruption in the local government was indirectly responsible for the lack of available water to fight the fire, and an unclear chain of command resulted in an unqualified member of the military taking charge of the fire-fighting process. His decisions to evacuate citizens (instead of allowing them to stay and try to save their homes), authorize the use of dynamite (by unqualified, untrained soldiers) to create firebreaks, and to declare martial law in the city resulted in the death of many people and the destruction of much of the city.The local firefighters, some local businessmen, and some members of the military–particularly the Navy–are portrayed well in the tale, but for the most part it is a litany of incompetence and poor planning.

The book is written well, and is clearly well-researched. My main issue with it is the switch back and forth between somewhat dry historical tome and historical fiction. I feel that the author should have gone in one direction or the other. However, I find this is often the case in books about historical events like this, since they can get very dry and impersonal if left without the emotional impact of having relateable “characters”.

On the whole, I’d recommend this to any history buffs who might be interested in the event, but not to someone looking for pleasure reading.

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