Wednesday, January 25, 2017

HISTORICAL NONFICTION: Under a Flaming Sky by Daniel James Brown


On September 1, 1894 two forest fires converged on the town of Hinckley, Minnesota, trapping over 2,000 people. Daniel J. Brown recounts the events surrounding the fire in the first and only book on to chronicle the dramatic story that unfolded. Whereas Oregon's famous "Biscuit" fire in 2002 burned 350,000 acres in one week, the Hinckley fire did the same damage in five hours. The fire created its own weather, including hurricane-strength winds, bubbles of plasma-like glowing gas, and 200-foot-tall flames. In some instances, "fire whirls," or tornadoes of fire, danced out from the main body of the fire to knock down buildings and carry flaming debris into the sky. Temperatures reached 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit--the melting point of steel. As the fire surrounded the town, two railroads became the only means of escape. Two trains ran the gauntlet of fire. One train caught on fire from one end to the other. The heroic young African-American porter ran up and down the length of the train, reassuring the passengers even as the flames tore at their clothes. On the other train, the engineer refused to back his locomotive out of town until the last possible minute of escape. In all, more than 400 people died, leading to a revolution in forestry management practices and federal agencies that monitor and fight wildfires today.Author Daniel Brown has woven together numerous survivors' stories, historical sources, and interviews with forest fire experts in a gripping narrative that tells the fascinating story of one of North America's most devastating fires and how it changed the nation.


I have this strange fascination for disaster survival stories.  I think what draws me to them the most is discovering the way people respond when such awful things occur.  This book I've read before interestingly enough, but it felt like a first read.  Brown has done a phenomenal job of putting the reader in the story.  Not only does he tell the story of a horrible wildfire that wreaked havoc, but he also delves into some of the things society has learned about fire over the last hundred years.  He talks about several different kinds of fires and what made this one so dangerous.  He compares the Hinckley fire to several other deadly fires that have occurred over the years, which made it easier to understand just how big this fire got.  Admittedly, it was hard to read about the people dying, fire is a horrible way to die after all.  But the part that made me the sickest and yet impressed me the most were the descriptions of what the rescuers and clean-up crews found when they came to help.  I was really impressed by how many people jumped in to provide help and how fast they did it.  How the rescuers managed to face the horribly burned bodies of men, women, and children, I really don't know, but I admire them for doing so.  Like most such survival stories, there were those who behaved heroically and those who focused solely on their own survival.  There were even looters and tourists who came to gawk.  But I think, underneath it all, this is a story about families, some who survived, and many who died, together.

1 comment:

  1. Ooooh, I LOVED The Boys in the Boat! And this story sounds fascinating - but wicked scary at the same time. I'm terrified of fire. Still, I am going to have to check this out. Off to GR!
    Rebecca @ The Portsmouth Review
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