On March 22, a dry goods store in Augusta, Georgia caught fire sometime between 6 p.m., when the owner locked up, and 6:20 p.m., when the first fire alarm came in. Igniting on the first floor, the fire “shot up a light shaft, mushroomed on the fifth floor, and was leaping in flame into the air through [the] light and elevator shaft and fifth floor windows when the fire department arrived” (NFPA Augusta Conflagration bulletin). More than 10 hours later, the fire, aided by the wind, had spread over a one-quarter square mile and destroyed 682 buildings for a total property loss of about $4.25 million.
Over the course of a 24-hour period, three cities across the Unites States suffered serious fires. The common denominators in each conflagration were dry, hot, and windy conditions combined with the fact that all three cities were saturated with wood-framed buildings that had wooden shingles. In Augusta, several additional factors were at play. The city was a key commercial center for the cotton industry, and when the warehouses ran out of storage room, cotton was often stored in the city streets. Not only did all this cotton in the streets add fuel to the fire, but it impeded responders to the fire and blocked hydrants. During the fire, Augusta also faced the problems of low water pressure and hydrant hook ups that were incompatible with hoses from visiting fire departments. The Augusta conflagration bulletin offered this vivid description of the scene during the fire:
“Augusta, Georgia, with her streets chocked with inflammable cotton in violation of her own ordinances, -- and her roofs covered with wooden shingles in conformance with them; her valiant fire department crippled with insufficient and obsolete pumping engines in a city of such water-wasters that a hose stream without a pumping engine is impotent, made her contribution of over four million dollars on March 22nd to the ash heap of the nation.”
(NFPA Augusta Conflagration bulletin )
Before the fire, the city's regulations on shingle roofs were inconsistent. An ordinance banning shingle roofs citywide was enacted in 1908, after repeated urging from the fire chief. But the ordinance was changed in 1914 to allow shingle roofs except in the area bounded by the river. The area where shingle roofs were prohibited was reduced in 1916, just six weeks before the fire. Weeks after the fire, a comprehensive building code was adopted that banned shingle roofs citywide once again. In addition, the fire led city officials to buy new pumping engines, lay an additional water main, and improve water pressure through the installation of water meters.
- National Fire Protection Association. Augusta, Georgia Conflagration March 22-23, 1916. Boston: NFPA, 1916
Written by Laurel Wilson, Digitization & Processing Intern, 2016
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