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On July 4, 1866, fireworks set off the Great Fire of Portland, Maine. Dry temperatures, low tide and a hot wind out of the west created perfect conditions for the conflagration which destroyed 1800 buildings and rendered 10,000 people homeless. All for the love of firecrackers. Starting with waterfront warehouses along Commercial Street at York Street, it spread across the peninsula to Munjoy Hill in the east. About half the city was destroyed and although it only claimed two lives (only!) the fire that burned on the 4th and 5th that year was devastating in its human impact and it is estimated that the cost to property and trade was 15 million dollars.  Poet and Portland native Henry Wadsworth Longfellow described the aftermath as "Desolation! Desolation! Desolation! It reminds me of Pompeii, the 'sepult city'." Five years before the Great Chicago Fire, this was the worst fire of its kind in an American city up to that time.

Follow me over the fold for more on the fire, links to contemporary images of the fire, and some thoughts on the use of fireworks by private individuals...

There are many contemporary images of the Portland fire available on the internet. The University of Southern Maine has engravings from the July 28,1866 edition of Harper's Weekly which will give you an idea of the breadth of the destruction. This map on a Maine Historical Society website shows the area of the fire. While it does not represent half of the city in a geographical sense, the conflagration consumed the densest part of the city where most people lived, worked and traded.

There have been many books written about the fire, among them John Neal's detailed "Account of the Great Conflagration of Portland" (1866), and most recently  "Portland's Greatest Conflagration: The 1866 Fire Disaster" by Don Whitney and Michael Daicy--both Whitney and Daicy also happen to be firefighters.

It is important to note that this fire was caused by someone setting off fireworks. Recently passed Public Law Chapter 416 has legalized the sale of fireworks in Maine to private individuals after a 70 year ban on such fireworks sales and possession. Like setting a lantern behind Mrs. O'Leary's cow and daring her to kick it over, the 125th Maine Legislature and tea party governor Paul Lepage have opened up the real possibility of dangerous fires in the State of Maine resulting from the careless and irresponsible discharging of fireworks.

Just last night, here on The Rock (an island without roads, infrastructure and certainly without firefighting capability) fireworks could be heard. Were a fire to start here on this tinderbox of junk spruce and downfall and pine needle strewn forest floors, the entire island and all of its dwellings would be burned to the ground. A salesman at the Verizon office in Portland recently told me about how firecrackers had been placed in his mailbox--a Federal offense. Right off the bat, some Mainers are using fireworks unsafely and in some cases, illegally. This was a bad decision for Maine, and I believe it is a mistake for private use of fireworks to be legal in any State.

I enjoy a good fireworks display as much as the next person, providing it is done by pyrotechnic experts with fire department personnel on standby. I have always, and continue to, oppose the private use of fireworks. Think about the Great Portland Fire of 1866 next time you buy those bottle rockets and firecrackers. What happened in Portland, Maine for the love of a firecracker could happen in your back yard.

Have a safe and happy Independence Day.

Originally posted to commonmass on Wed Jul 04, 2012 at 09:11 AM PDT.

Also republished by History for Kossacks.


Do You Approve of Private Use of Fireworks?

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Comment Preferences

  •  We have a cabin in the Santa Cruz mountains (15+ / 0-)

    It's up a narrow canyon that was logged early in the 20th century.  The redwoods have now regrown to a pretty substantial height, and they're stealing the sunlight from the oaks and madrones, which grew back faster after the initial logging.  The oaks and madrones are starting to die off, and those that remain are spindly and growing at extreme angles on hillsides, so they fall easily.  There's a lot of flammable undergrowth, between the feral Scotch Broom and everyone's ornamental plantings.  There are about 500 homes in the canyon.  Though most are full-time residents now, they were originally built as vacation cabins, so lots of wood and single-wall construction.  Roads are very narrow (mostly single-car wide) and water pressure is suboptimal.

    In other words, if there's a fire, everyone is well and truly fucked.

    And yet, when we were down there last weekend, I was hearing fireworks.  W.T.F. ??

  •  I imagine emergency departments will be full... (13+ / 0-)

    ...of folks with burns and worse this week.

    Part of the problem is that the 70-year time span when they were illegal means that the majority of those who might be using them this year might be doing so for the first time...and they're at least 1-2 generations away from anyone who might have learned basic safety rules surrounding their use.

    Sure, some folks in these parts always snuck over the border to buy them in NH, so some do know what they're doing (not that that makes them immune to Darwin Award-esque injury), but for a lot of people this is going to be their first go 'round with them. In this era of violent imagery with no physical consequences, I'm guessing a lot of people are going to be thinking "...what's the worst that can happen?" just before lighting a fuse and blowing off a finger or losing an eye.

    Nice job at putting the fire into historical can still see it's "footprint" all over Portland to this day, just as you can see the point in London where the Great Fire of 1666 fizzled out. The house I live in right now was built the year after the Great Fire of Portland, by someone relocating from a burned part of the city to the newly settled area that is now the Arts District and Parkside. Most of the big brick houses on my street are circa 1867 on, as are many of the houses in the West End.

    "When did it fall apart? Sometime in the '80s / When the great and the good gave way to the greedy and the mean." - Billy Bragg

    by Vacationland on Wed Jul 04, 2012 at 09:27:34 AM PDT

  •  Amen, commonmass... When I lived in NH (9+ / 0-)

    and worked in MA, on of the VPs used to ask me to buy fireworks on the NH side of the border and bring them down to MA so he could deploy them with his wife and young daughter. Beyond the screaming illegality of transporting them into MA, I couldn't imagine what I'd have done if anything ever happened to his daughter.

    Here in the south, fireworks are readily available in fixed locations and various temporary sheds, trailers, tents. Even as I type this, future Darwin Award winners are stocking up.

    The number of folks setting of fireworks in residential areas has gone up every year. Like you, I love a good display, handled by experts, not by witless folks oblivious to fire danger, personal injury, and the terror of household pets.

    Great diary! Hope you are enjoying your day!

    Some drink deeply from the river of knowledge. Others only gargle. -- Woody Allen

    by cassandracarolina on Wed Jul 04, 2012 at 09:34:20 AM PDT

  •  In our fire-prone forest area (8+ / 0-)

    the fireworks are set off from a barge on the lake - the lake is a mile wide and 50 miles long. There's a road that switchbacks above the lake with a wide spot where a lot of vehicles can park and look down on the lake nearly a 1000 feet below.

    We used to go up there to watch the fireworks on the 4th, and we'd be parked next to 3 or 4 state DNR and Forest Service fire crews who were watching the fireworks as well.

    Every year, the fire crews would take off one by one on calls to fireworks that ignited brush or woods on fire. There's not even anyplace in our vicinity you can buy fireworks, but people still get them and misuse them.

    It's never too late to have a happy childhood - Tom Robbins

    by badger on Wed Jul 04, 2012 at 09:37:21 AM PDT

  •  "Freedom-type legislation" ... (8+ / 0-)

    that's what wingnut state legislators in AZ call these laws. While most of their legislative proposals are standard ALEC class war stuff; tax cuts for Big Biz, budget cuts for schools and libraries, they always pass a few freedom-type laws. So it is that guns are now allowed in bars, schools and churches and AZ cities are now prohibited from making the sale of fireworks illegal by state law. This plays to the get-the-gubmint-off-my-back conservatives with their childish notion of freedom. "See, we stand for Freedom," don't look to close at our economic agenda.

    The GOP ... Government of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%

    by Azazello on Wed Jul 04, 2012 at 09:38:40 AM PDT

    •  Fortunately here in Maine, (6+ / 0-)

      municipalities are allowed to ban fireworks and some already have (the law was passed last year). Portland, Maine has--wisely--done so. The city's motto--"Resurgam", "I will Rise again"--is pretty ironic, given the fire. The Portland City Mothers and Fathers were wise enough not to want to push their luck with fireworks.

      BTW, I read about the ban in...the Portland Phoenix. LOL.

      Santorum: Man on Dog; Romney: Dog on Car. Mrs. Romney: Fraud on Horse.

      by commonmass on Wed Jul 04, 2012 at 09:45:09 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Interesting episode in Portland history (6+ / 0-)

        that I didn't know about. All the Old Port buildings on Exchange St., etc., seem to date from the late 19th century, by the look of them -- now we know why.

        From the sound of things last night, it doesn't seem like Greene, ME has seen fit to pass an anti-fireworks ordinance.

        Nothing requires a greater effort of thought than arguments to justify the rule of non-thought. -- Milan Kundera

        by Dale on Wed Jul 04, 2012 at 10:07:21 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Yes, hence Vacationland's comment (5+ / 0-)

          about being able to "see" the footprint of the fire. If you blow up the map on the MHS site I provided a link to, you can see exactly the path it took. Walk the city and look at the buildings, especially those with an historical plaque on them. All after the fire.

          Now, that being said, it's nice that Portland was largely spared the devastation of "urban renewal" that plagued Boston in the 1950's and '60's. There was a wonderful diary about that last week here on Daily Kos (about Boston, that is). I love to look at old photos of Monument Square, however: it seems Portland was forever playing with it.

          Santorum: Man on Dog; Romney: Dog on Car. Mrs. Romney: Fraud on Horse.

          by commonmass on Wed Jul 04, 2012 at 10:16:34 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  Excellent diary, and heed the warning (8+ / 0-)

    I'm sure I'll hear local fireworks in this part of the San Fernando Valley, which isn't quite the tinderbox it will be at the end of next month.  You'd think that your legislators MIGHT know history, but I'm sure your governor will benefit from this bill somehow.

    -7.75, -8.10; All it takes is security in your own civil rights to make you complacent.

    by Dave in Northridge on Wed Jul 04, 2012 at 09:39:26 AM PDT

  •  I've been hearing them lots (8+ / 0-)

    over here in heavily wooded western Maine.

    Definitely not thrilled with the change ~~ and my poor wee beasties even less so. And I have the scratches to prove that ~~ Penn is an expert at claws-out take-offs :-(

    At one point yesterday evening, I could hear three separate sets of fireworks being set off. Ugh. Love the controlled big events (although I rarely go, as I dislike the crowds with being an introvert and having some slight sensory issues....) but these little bits without warning ~ YUCK!

    Just glad for all the rain we've had, as it reduces the communal risk of major fires a little bit.

    The worst sin - perhaps the only sin - passion can commit, is to be joyless. (Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers)

    by mayim on Wed Jul 04, 2012 at 09:52:28 AM PDT

    •  We'll probably hear them next weekend (5+ / 0-)

      at your meetup, too. Knowing your road as I do, I cannot imagine a fire truck getting down ** Lane, or many others like it out in the lakes region.

      I've seen Penn do those take offs. Ouch.

      Santorum: Man on Dog; Romney: Dog on Car. Mrs. Romney: Fraud on Horse.

      by commonmass on Wed Jul 04, 2012 at 10:01:33 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Our birds are not fond of fireworks, and we have (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      it worse than most.  We live in the Sunset district in San Francisco, an area which has a large Asian (primarily Chinese) population.  So not only do we get firecrackers on the 4th, we also get them for Lunar New Year and regular New Year's Eve.  This gives the birds three opportunities to freak out.

      Fortunately, a lot of the firecrackers for the 4th get set off at Ocean Beach (started last night), so we see them but don't hear them quite so loudly.  But on Lunar New Year, our neighborhood keeps popping with firecrackers non-stop.

  •  If anyone remains unconvinced (8+ / 0-)

    that fireworks can't do much harm, here's a video from 2000 when a fireworks factory in Enschede Netherlands blew. Terrifying. Everyone stay safe this year!

  •  I'm with you. (9+ / 0-)

    The private use of fireworks has always made me nervous. Even if they don't start a fire, they can fuck up or kill a person. I prefer my fireworks at a distance being overseen by experts.

    The honey and I are torn between going to see the Dallas fireworks or just venturing over to Arlington and watching the fireworks there. I kind of want to see the big fireworks display, but I have a feeling it's going to be a nightmare getting there and getting home. :p

    Great diary, btw. Thanks for the history lesson, commonmass.

    Homosexuality is found in over 450 species. Homophobia is found in only one. Which one seems unnatural now?

    by Chrislove on Wed Jul 04, 2012 at 09:59:45 AM PDT

    •  Thanks, Chris. (5+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Chrislove, mayim, burnt out, lineatus, broths

      Be careful and enjoy your holiday.

      Santorum: Man on Dog; Romney: Dog on Car. Mrs. Romney: Fraud on Horse.

      by commonmass on Wed Jul 04, 2012 at 10:02:55 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Even the "innocent" legal ones..... (6+ / 0-)

      ...are dangerous.

      Kids here in Portland lit a sparkler with a toaster and started a two-alarm house fire Monday.


      •  "Lit a sparkler in a toaster" (0+ / 0-)

        From the Portland Press Herald article on this story we learned that these kids were 3 and 4 years old and they had seen their mom light cigarettes with the toaster.

        This article also has a choice quote from the Gov:

        "There is a demand and we want to make sure there's an adequate supply that is safe and sold to people of age," he said. The law requires buyers to be 21 or older.
        For those asking why our state would relax fireworks laws - our tea-bagging Gov has a raging case of "NH envy".
        •  Let's question how and why (0+ / 0-)

          a three and four year old were unattended.

          What of the reach-in and get burned risk?

          What about those adorable stars-n-stripes polyester outfits those kids may be wearing which burn and melt to their skin?

          The sparkler didn't cause the house fire - a parent who should be charged with criminal negligence did.

          The sparkler - if the active instrument - didn't maliciously hop into the toaster, nor blaze a path of destruction from place of manufacture, to that house.

          No, there were human causative actions.

          In the late '80s, we rappelled trapped occupants from a burning apartment building early one morning. The flames were rolling into the hallway, blocking egress, thus forcing the occupants onto balconies that were not reachable by truck or ground ladder.

          Cause:  A three year old, unattended.

          The three year old was flicking lit matches, and one caught the couch cover on fire.


          Mommy's sleeping.
          Go watch TV, have some cereal.   Mommy will be out later.
          Boyfriend: Mommy's busy.
          Mommy isn't coming out so just... BEEP BEEP BEEP What the fuck?  Is that the smoke detector?
          Yep.  Five apartments worth of smoke detector, as you fled the apartment mostly naked, and left the damn door open.

          The neighbors rescued, I started my interview.
          The boyfriend took a powder before I could get to him, but as we secured the scene, we knew who 'came and went'.

          He was gracious and let the mother keep his too-short t-shirt, and left barefoot and wearing his pants (which had his keys).

          Four hours later, he was in handcuffs with the mother, charged with child neglect, criminal mischief, aggravated mopery a/k/a Obstruction of Governmental Administration (by purposely avoiding interview).

          No real injuries, other than to property and dignity.

  •  Portland's motto is related to that fire... (8+ / 0-)

    "Resurgam" --- "I will rise again"

    Symbolized on our seal by a phoenix rising from the ashes

    Fortunately, there's a provision in the state law that still allows towns to ban fireworks if they choose.  Gobs of them have, including Portland.  I've seen several large electronic roadside display signs---the kind that usually say things like "Road closed" or "Construction ahead prepare for delays"---at various city limits that flash, NOTICE: FIREWORKS PROHIBITED IN [TOWN].

    Not that it makes much difference.  People are still confused about it.  So it goes.

    Nice diary, commonmass.


  •  Private use of fireworks is legal here in Missouri (5+ / 0-)

    and it is a big, though seasonal, business here, with fireworks stands set up in every town and scattered along the highways. Most towns , even the little burgs and villages, normally have fireworks displays too. This  year, with the drought conditions and resulting fire hazard, most towns have canceled or at least postponed their fireworks displays, and banned the use of fireworks within their city limits, but private citizens in the rest of the county are still able to buy and use as many fireworks as their pocket books can afford.

     There is a million acres of National park forest that begins about an hour south of me and they just put out a fire that burned 600 acres last week and 7 new ones have been started in the past few days, all put out or under control , but they have been lucky that no wind was blowing to drive the fires or it could have been many times worse.

    I was sitting outside on the porch last night and heard fireworks  going off just down the road from me. I hooked up my garden hoses just in case so I'd be able to hose down the house in case the morons down the road caught the surrounding woods on fire but so far we've been lucky. No doubt there will be more idiots out there again tonight.

    Just give me some truth. John Lennon--- OWS------Too Big To Fail

    by burnt out on Wed Jul 04, 2012 at 10:13:23 AM PDT

  •  Being from Chicago, I know from fires. (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    commonmass, lineatus, mayim, Calamity Jean

    Well I wasn't near the cow when it happened.  Really.
    Not only fires are caused by fireworks, people loose hands, eyes and other body parts.  Dumb, especially in most of the country that is hotter then hell, and bone dry.

    I am a work in progress. Still.

    by broths on Wed Jul 04, 2012 at 10:25:03 AM PDT

    •  I love Chicago. (4+ / 0-)

      Lived there a while. Would live there again.

      Yeah, fireworks are really bad news when you're not trained to work with them, and even then, things can go wrong like in that nightclub in Providence years ago.

      There is one fire, however, that no one ever believes happened unless they are from Boston, and only then when you give them a linky:

      The Great Boston Molasses Flood.

      Santorum: Man on Dog; Romney: Dog on Car. Mrs. Romney: Fraud on Horse.

      by commonmass on Wed Jul 04, 2012 at 10:28:41 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  O.K, I'll trade with you, because I would (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        lineatus, mayim, commonmass

        rather live in Maine.

        I am a work in progress. Still.

        by broths on Wed Jul 04, 2012 at 11:00:00 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  EVERYONE who has ever been to Maine (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          would rather live in Maine. Our Tea Party leg and gov notwithstanding. 'Cause we have this:

          and this:

          Santorum: Man on Dog; Romney: Dog on Car. Mrs. Romney: Fraud on Horse.

          by commonmass on Wed Jul 04, 2012 at 11:20:40 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Lessons to be learned: (0+ / 0-)

            Fireworks alone aren't the issue, and I've read comments regarding underbrush and wildfire risks above.

            A worthwhile read, also a Maine conflagration:

            We humans, and I refer to lineatus' post above, interfere with the common small fires that over the years lessen the "duff" and turn it into ash.  That ash is beneficial, ask anyone about burning the blueberry 'barrens'.

            To suppress these fires, we increase the stored fuel load, and create the ideal conditions for these massive, hot, and very environmentally destructive fires.  I'm talking about combusting all of the topsoil layer organic material, only to have what remains blow away or erode when it rains.

            So rather than have a inch or two of pine needles, some charred wood, and fresh green growth (some Western pines require fire to germinate their seeds) - we keep the dead wood and thick carpet of leaves and needles - as, in our view, it's the "natural" habitat.

            That, and these are "modern" times.  Not like 1947.
            Way back when in the Atomic Age.
            They didn't have iPhones back then... now where's that "keep my house from burning" app when I need it?

    •  Here's a taste, pardon the pun: (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      lineatus, broths, mayim

      from Wikipedia:

      The Boston Molasses Disaster, also known as the Great Molasses Flood and the Great Boston Molasses Tragedy, occurred on January 15, 1919, in the North End neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts in the United States. A large molasses storage tank burst, and a wave of molasses rushed through the streets at an estimated 35 mph (56 km/h), killing 21 and injuring 150. The event has entered local folklore, and residents claim that on hot summer days, the area still smells of molasses

      Santorum: Man on Dog; Romney: Dog on Car. Mrs. Romney: Fraud on Horse.

      by commonmass on Wed Jul 04, 2012 at 10:30:03 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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