Jun 24, 2018

The Umeå City Fire and The Great Seattle Fire

I remember it as the day Umeå was on fire was Midsummer’s Day. But checking it up now I am learning it was on June 25, so I am probably wrong. Since back in the days Midsummers was at the actual day of the summer solstice. Nevertheless it was around Midsummers and the year was 1888.

The Great Seattle Fire happened the year after, 1889, on June 6. And the man causing it was a Swede.

The pre-summer in Umeå had been extremely dry. Not a single millimeter of rain had been registered at the meteorological station at Midsummers. The same goes for Seattle the year after. Beautiful weather with the downside of very little rain.

At this time and age it wasn’t unusual for whole cities burning. Therefore, in Umeå smoking in public places was prohibited this June 1888, on Midsummer’s Day the north east wind turned into a storm.

Minutes after 1 PM June 25 the city hall bells rang. There was a fire in the attic of the brewery close to the Umeå River. In spite of the city being prepared for this kind of situation, the fire spred fast through shingles from the stick roof, landing on close by lots in the hard wind. 

On the afternoon of June 6 1889 in Seattle, John Back, a Swedish assistant in Victor Clairmont's woodworking shop at the corner of what is now First Avenue and Madison Avenue, was heating glue over a gasoline fire. Sometime after 2.15, the glue boiled over, caught fire, and spread to the floors which were covered by wood chips and turpentine. He tried to put the fire out with water, but that only served to thin the turpentine and spread the fire further.

In Umeå the fire escalated both to the west and east, cutting off the access to the fire hoses. As the crew risked being surrounded by the fire they had to stop their work, and, like everyone else in Umeå this day, try to save what ever they could of their belongings and escape the fire.  

In a couple of hours the fire in Seattle was out of control. Explosions of a liquor store and two saloons fuelled the situation by immense amounts of alcohol and the entire block from Madison to Marion was on fire. Due to how the Seattle water system was constructed, the fact that the tide was out and the wind rising, by 4 PM most residents realised that downtown Seattle was doomed.

The fire in Umeå kept escalating up until 7-8 PM when it was stopped by the birches at Östra Esplanaden (the East Esplanade). There was only one house left within the area for the fire. No casualties were reported, but 2500 people out of the Umeå population of 3000 were homeless when the sun set behind the dark ash sky. 

Those who were able to hire wagons in Seattle did so, to haul belongings onto ships before they moved out of the harbor away from the wharves, which were on fire. The city fire burned until 3 AM. When it eased out, the damage was enormous. 25 city blocks had been destroyed. Although the loss of human life was evidently low the total losses counted in money may have been as high as 20 million dollar.

The Umeå City Fire was of course a catastrophe. At the same time it became a turning point. The new city center was planned around wide avenues lined with birches, the tree so dense with water that it stopped the fire. Today Umeå is called The City of Birches. This new era also seemed to change the self esteem of the city, aiming for more than it once was and with a progressive approach.

Seattle took little time to mourn. At 11AM on June 7, 600 businessmen met to discuss how to cope with the current situation and plan for the future. Wooden buildings were banned in the burned out district to be replaced by brick. At the same time, streets were raised up to 22 feet (6 meters) in places, helping to level the hilly city. It is really interesting to take the Seattle Underground History Tour, walking the streets under Pioneer Square which are the rests of the original Seattle downtown before the great fire.

120 and 119 years later Umeå and Seattle are both thriving. Locomotives at the north east coast of Sweden and the north west coast of the US. Doing good. The pre-summer in Sweden has been extraordinary warm and sunny, and the driest in modern history. We have already had many difficult wild fires, but thankfully it is unusual to see cities burn nowadays.

Midsummer Eve the sky finally opened, draining us in heavy rain, strong winds and cold temperatures. On our most celebrated day, that weather wasn’t what we wanted. But much needed. And maybe I will finally dare setting the match to all the paper building up in my kitchen fire place through these dry months? I’m not so sure.

Today has been a gorgeous day. 21°C (70°F), and a perfectly clear sky. I’ve spent the afternoon in the sun on my west wall with an Arnold Palmer, watching the wind in my cherry trees. 

On this Midsummers Sunday evening the sun will set at 11.09 PM, the same as Summer Solstice three days ago. After a brief rest it will rise again at 2.15 AM. We have now lost 1 minute in this cycle of the planets where we live our lives following the rules of the Milky Way, invisible for about 1,5 more months. 

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