Thursday, December 6, 2012

Book review: Under a Flaming Sky

 Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894 surprised me. I did not expect it to be a book that would cause me to read it cover to cover in one sitting. I was, after all, familiar with the outlines of the Hinckley story: the humongous wildfire, a firestorm, swooping down on the town, people fleeing for their lives with the fire literally at their heels, the hundreds of fatalities among those who found themselves with nowhere to run. I've been to the cemetery in Hinckley. I've seen the monument and the mass graves where most of the 496 known victims are buried. If anything, I thought I'd be reading the book slowly, forced to pause for a break from one horrific incident after another. Daniel James Brown, however, built the pauses into the book. Just as you think you're not up to reading about another victim suffocating in a root cellar or being burned alive while running for the river, Brown breaks away with an extended sidebar about forestry, logging history, burn treatment then and now, and other topics.

The emotional breathing spaces are in their own way rather horrifying, too. Each one is an explication of some aspect of the Hinckley disaster: definitions of wildfires and notable examples occurring before or after the Hinckley fire, an explanation of exactly how fire kills a person, burn treatment in 1894 and why most burn victims died, and so on. His descriptions, for example, of fire behavior now has me looking at the trees in our yard and the brushed-in  pastures and wondering just how many yards back I want to clearcut everything. A 40-acre lawn is looking good at the moment. Then again, if there ever was a fire of the type Brown describes, it might take more acres than we've got to create a safe zone. Maybe my disaster preparedness should include thinking of ways to get out of here fast if the one and only road is impassable.

The book is a straight forward narrative. The author explains his interest in Hinckley in the prologue: his grandfather had survived the fire. Later in the book, when Brown reveals his grandfather's name in the epilogue, we realize he did so by getting on to the one northbound train that managed to outrun the fire's progress. Brown begins the book proper with a description of conditions in the upper Lake States that summer -- unusually hot and dry weather that had persisted for many weeks, the fuel load in the woods (mountains of tinder dry slash from white pine logging) -- coupled with a rather casual attitude toward the possibility of fire. Small fires were so common that there had been haze in the air for many weeks; almost none of those fires near Hinckley had flared into anything so large it had been uncontrollable. A fire had burned Phillips, Wisconsin, to the ground in July, but apparently hadn't been seen as a warning sign elsewhere in the northwoods. Various residents of the Hinckley area are then  introduced: doctors, businessmen, housewives, children, farmers, millworkers, and railroad workers. As the timeline progresses, the fire inches closer to hitting Hinckley. Who lives, who dies is revealed as the narrative unfolds.

One of the more intriguing aspects of the book was the discussion of why people often respond irrationally in a disaster. One of the two trains* to make it out of Hinckley stopped at stations along the way to take on water for the boiler and to telegraph the railroad dispatcher in Duluth the news that Hinckley was destroyed and the railroad was now cut off from St. Paul. At each stop, the train crew and passengers, who truly looked like they'd just crawled straight out of Hell, urged the local people to evacuate immediately. Sandstone, Minnesota, for example, was only 11 miles from Hinckley. The people there could see and smell the smoke (it was already so thick the train crew wasn't sure the high trestle over the river was still there), there were embers falling, but when the train crew said, in essence, RUN!, almost no one did. The train was barely out of sight when the fire hit Sandstone and leveled the town. One of the great tragedies of the human condition is that when it is most important that people think outside the box, they can't. People cope with fear by sticking to a familiar script.

The Hinckley fire and its aftermath, incidentally, is remarkably well-documented. A horde of journalists descended on the community right along with the relief workers, taking photographs and interrogating traumatized survivors. Newspapers as far away as London, England, published reports within 48 hours, and books with extensive first hand accounts appeared within a few months. In addition, a number of the survivors wrote memoirs and the local historical society collected oral histories. The Minnesota State Historical Society houses a number of collections, e.g., questionnaires completed by relief workers when they interviewed survivors, so there is a wealth of archival material.

As for the usual question -- would I recommend this book to other readers? -- the answer is Yes. It's well-written, fast-paced, and extremely interesting. Beyond that endorsement, I'll add that anyone who lives in an area where there is an urban-wildland interface should read this book and then start re-writing their internalized scripts. When someone says there's a wildfire heading your way, don't hang around telling yourself bad stuff only happens to other people or waiting to see if the firefighters are going to get it stopped before it gets to your subdivision. Just pack and leave.

[*One train was able to get through to Duluth; the second one was cut off not far out of town but made it to a small, muddy lake -- Skunk Lake -- and passengers and crew were able to survive by immersing themselves in the muck and water.]


  1. I'm rather fond of the idea of a cheap cremation.

  2. I think I will buy this for my husband - he loves historical disaster stories about floods, etc.


  3. Have you read this:
    Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America by John M. Barry


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