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Examining the San Francisco Earthquake Fire

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This page is intended to provide information pertaining to the San Francisco earthquake fire.

One of the biggest fires in history occurred on Wednesday, April 18, 1906 – the San Francisco earthquake fire. A massive earthquake struck the coast of California, inflicting serious damage on the bustling city of San Francisco. Measured at a 7.9 magnitude, this rupture in the San Andreas fault was felt all the way from Los Angeles to Oregon, and even as far inland as the state of Nevada. In total, the rupture stretched 296 miles. The earthquake also created one of the biggest fires in the history of the U.S. and one of its largest natural disasters.

San Francisco Earthquake Fire
San Francisco - 1906
image courtesy of wikipedia

San Francisco today
San Francisco - today

The fires that spread across San Francisco were mainly caused by broken and leaky gas lines, but firefighter errors were also responsible. Rather than the earthquake itself, the flames are thought to be the main source of destruction - much more damage was done and much more lives were lost due to the fires.

How Did the Fire Spread?
Although the earthquake was the primary cause of fires, a combination of things brought about their expansion. More than 30 gas lines were broken and caught fire during the quake and its aftershocks, but the spread of those contained fires is another matter entirely.

Fire Chief Dennis T. Sullivan died in the earthquake, leaving a group of firefighters leaderless and ripe to make decisions that only caused further harm. In an attempt to create a firebreak around the flames, firefighters used dynamite to destroy selected houses. Unfortunately, the result was only further damage and in most cases, the buildings destined to become part of the firebreak became enflamed themselves.

Insurance issues were another factor. Because California insurance companies did not cover homeowners in the case of an earthquake at that time, many were actually lighting the fires themselves. Seeing their homes destroyed and anticipating no compensation whatsoever, desperate people set fire to their homes and inadvertently enabled the spread of the huge fire across the city.

The earthquake had also damaged the water mains, virtually eliminating the ability of firefighters to put out the flames using traditional means. All factors combined, one can understand the pattern of destruction that occurred, and why it was deemed one of the biggest fires in history.

The landmark Palace Hotel was burnt to the ground, and many important scientific specimens were lost as laboratories went up in flames. From nutrition to botany and even state artifacts, all became part of the causalities of the San Francisco earthquake fire.

Result of One of the Biggest Fires in History
The death toll for the earthquake was set at approximately 3000, although many claim that 90 percent of the damage and destruction occurred in the fires. Covering 490 city blocks and destroying almost 25,000 city buildings and homes, the San Francisco earthquake fire was truly devastating. The army was called in to assist with the clean up and control of the city, and thousands of temporary homes were built for the displaced residents.

Although business leaders in the city attempted to downplay the figures, it was estimated that $400 million in damages resulted from this disaster. Rebuilding began almost immediately and was completed, for the most part, by 1915, a scant nine years later. Since then, survivors of the blaze have met every year on April 18 at Lotta’s Fountain, in the financial district of the city. Thanks to the tenacity of the residents, the armed forces, and the support of numerous entities around the world, San Francisco was truly able to “rise from the ashes,” as many claimed, and regain its place of thriving beauty.



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