Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Great Hinckley Fire

“I dragged all day on the wheat ground.  Has looked like rain some of the time today – south wind.  Will and Libbie spend the evening with us.”

The Great Hinckley Fire was a major conflagration on September 1, 1894, which burned an area of at least 810 km² (Haines & Sando 1969), perhaps more than 1000 km², including the town of Hinckley, Minnesota. The fire killed hundreds, with the minimum number estimated at 418. However, some scholars believe the actual figure to be nearly 800. If so, this was the deadliest fire in the history of Minnesota (the 1918 Cloquet Fire killed at least 453).
After a two-month drought, combined with high temperatures, several small fires started in the pine forests of Pine County, Minnesota. The fires' spread apparently was due to the then-common method of lumber harvesting, in which trees were stripped of their branches, which littered the ground with flammable debris. Also contributing was a temperature inversion that trapped the gases from the fires. The scattered blazes united into a firestorm. The temperature rose to at least 1100 °C. Barrels of nails melted into one mass, and in the yards of the Eastern Minnesota Railroad, the wheels of the cars fused with the rails. Some resident were able to escape by climbing into wells, or by reaching ponds or the Grindstone River. Others clambered aboard two crowded trains that were able to leave the threatened town. James Root, an engineer on a train heading south from Duluth, rescued nearly 300 people by backing up a train nearly five miles to Skunk Lake, where the passengers were able to escape the fire.
According to the Hinckley Fire Museum:
"Because of the dryness of the summer, fires were common in the woods, along railroad tracks and in logging camps where loggers would set fire to their slash to clean up the area before moving on. Some loggers, of course left their debris behind, giving any fire more fuel on which to grow. Saturday, September 1st, 1894 began as another oppressively hot day with fires surrounding the towns and two major fires that were burning about five miles (8 km) to the south. To add to the problem, the temperature inversion that day added to the heat, smoke and gases being held down by the huge layer of cool air above. The two fires managed to join together to make one large fire with flames that licked through the inversion finding the cool air above. That air came rushing down into the fires to create a vortex or tornado of flames which then began to move quickly and grew larger and larger turning into a fierce firestorm. The fire first destroyed the towns of Mission Creek and Brook Park before coming into the town of Hinckley. When it was over the Firestorm had completely destroyed six towns, and over 400 square miles (1,000 km2) lay black and smoldering. The firestorm was so devastating that it lasted only four hours but destroyed everything in its path."
The towns of Mission Creek, Brook Park and Hinckley were completely destroyed. Sandstone was also burned.

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