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San Francisco is Burning: The Untold Story of the 1906 Earthquake and Fires    by Dennis Smith order for
San Francisco is Burning
by Dennis Smith
Order:  USA  Can
Plume, 2006 (2005)
Hardcover, Softcover, Audio, CD

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* *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

Almost everyone knows a few things about the great earthquake that devastated San Francisco in April of 1906. Some people - but fewer - even know about the fires that spread for several days throughout the city in the aftermath of the earthquake. Fed by plenty of fuel and fanned by bad decisions, poor planning, corruption, and ineffective actions, the wide-spread fires nearly erased San Francisco from the map.

However, nearly no one knows the complete story about the heroic San Francisco firemen and countless other San Franciscans who were determined to save their city from the catastrophic inferno that threatened to destroy everything.

Documentary records of the event, dispersed in archives and only partially available throughout the past century, have unfortunately been frequently distorted by rumor and fiction. In fact, much of what has been previously written about the fires is incomplete or inaccurate.

Now, with the book finally appearing in trade paperback, readers have easy access to Dennis Smith's excellent account of the 1906 disaster, San Francisco is Burning. Smith tells about the four harrowing days of fires, and - in doing so - he goes much further by giving readers plenty of accurate details and - more importantly - compelling accounts of the heroes who saved San Francisco.

Read about the valiant heroes of Engine Company 1 and the other heroic firemen of the San Francisco Fire Department. Read about Lieutenant Frank Freeman, the U. S. naval officer on the USS Preble whose initiative and heroics helped save the city’s imperiled piers and wharves. Read about the wealthy Rudolph Spreckels who 'put his conscience before the social well-being of his family and his friends.' And read about Frederick Funston, the U.S. Army officer whose rescue efforts ironically more seriously endangered the city and its people.

Also read about the shocking factors that exacerbated the chaos: the use of dynamite as a firefighting strategy, the dislocation and unavailability of the volunteer firemen, and the mayor's imposition of martial law and his ill-advised shoot-to-kill orders.

Yes, everyone knows that the earthquake was devastating. But when the fires followed, the conflagration in the city known as 'the Paris of the Pacific' and 'the Baghdad by the Bay' became 'bigger than any metropolitan fire in history.' The impact upon San Francisco was staggering in its scope:

'The four-day event took more than 3,000 lives, burned through 28,188 buildings, flattened 522 blocks, destroyed tens of churches, 9 libraries, 37 national banks, the Pacific Stock Exchange, 3 major newspaper buildings (the Call, Chronicle, and Bulletin), 2 opera houses, and the largest, most richly appointed imperial hotel in the era of turn-of-the-century opulence. More the 200,000 people were burned out of their homes - men, women, and children who found themselves wandering smoke-filled streets with no claim to a future except that they were alive and that they owned the clothes on their backs.'

Written by a former New York City firefighter, San Francisco is Burning is a well-written narrative history in which heroes and villains figure prominently. Yet it is something more. It is a contemporary cautionary tale which should remind us all of the ways in which nature, human folly, and the darker sides of human nature can sometimes conspire together against our comfortable existence - consider, for sakes of comparison, Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.

Fortunately, as is evident in San Francisco is Burning, the world is usually inhabited by enough heroes (too frequently overlooked) so that we are usually able to survive the catastrophic intersection of nature's horrors and man's hubris. Perhaps the next time, though, we won't be so fortunate. And, as Dennis Smith, reminds us, there most certainly will be a next time.

The bottom line is this: Dennis Smith's book ought to be required reading for everyone (especially in government and civilian agencies) who must plan for and deal with disasters. And those same people ought to be reminded that people who ignore history are often doomed to repeat it.

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