Book Review: San Francisco is Burning: The Untold Story of the 1906 Earthquake and Fires

Dennis Smith, author of Report from Ground Zero and former New York City firefighter, turned his journalistic skills and disaster-zone experience to the biggest metropolitan fire in history: San Francisco in 1906.

San Francisco is Burning is a well-researched account that should appeal to anyone interested in how little we’ve learned in the 100 years between SF 1906 and Katrina/New Orleans 2005. Smith’s book came out before Katrina, but the similarities are downright scary: the heroism of the first responders counterbalanced by the sheer incompetence of the politicians and managers; the bravery of some citizens counterbalanced by looting and murder from others; ignored warnings from experts before the fact (about unstable levees in the Gulf Coast or fire hazards in SF buildings); and on and on and on.

Smith casts a particularly negative eye on General Funston, whose bust resides in SF city hall and for whom a major boulevard is named. Funston was an army general in Presidio who became the key manager of the firefighting effort, despite knowing nothing about fires. It was Funston who was responsible for two key errors in the effort: ordering dynamite explosions throughout the city, which were supposed to act as fire breaks but instead made things worse, and second, failing to enlist the help of average citizens to tame the smaller flames. As President Bush might say, “Heckuva job, Funsty.”

100 years later San Francisco is rebuilt and glorious. But, expectedly, Smith ends his book on an ominous tone: the chances of a quake as large as 1906 within the next 30 years is a near certainty, and yet we continue to shrink fire department resources, continue to hold lackadaisical building codes, continue to live — as residents — largely unprepared as far as emergency supplies and procedures go. Our grasp of natural disasters generally, Smith notes, is poor. Many New Yorkers think they’re safe from earthquakes, for example, even though a major fault line runs through the city.

Living in a danger zone is the cost of living in paradise, I suppose, but — if we adopt Richard Posner’s formula as outlined in Risk: Catastrophe and Response and summarized in his blog post — given the expected cost of a 1906-esque natural disaster, even with a very low probability of occurrence, we should be doing much, much more to prepare ourselves.

Related Post: Earthquake Zone vs. Hurricane Zone: The Anxiety of Certainty

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