Fighting Fire in San Francisco

The San Francisco earthquake of April 18, 1906 claimed over 3,000 lives. Even the fire chief, Dennis T. Sullivan, was fatally wounded that day when the chimney of a neighboring building collapsed on him.


The earthquake and subsequent fires, though devastating, shaped the city for future safety and fire prevention.


That day, 90% of the destruction occurred after the initial 7.8 earthquake, in fires. There were over 30 fires, destroying approximately 25,000 buildings on 490 city blocks.  Complicated by ruptured water mains and quaking disasters all over the Bay Area, the city’s conflagration lasted three days, levelled 80% of the city.


Wikipedia 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.


The hydrant that saved a neighborhood in 1906

Over a century has passed since then, and residents are often assured there will never be anything so catastrophic again. An annual celebration of the survival of the city occurs every April 18 at 5:12 a.m., the time the 1906 earthquake hit.


A post I wrote last year about the celebration: Celebrating Survival. 


Protective laws and regulations, neighborhood preparedness, and numerous preventative systems are in place.


If you drive around San Francisco, for example, every once in awhile you will find an intersection with a large circle made of bricks. There are 177 of them. Measuring 32 feet (9.75M) in diameter, the circle indicates there is a huge underground concrete vault filled with 75,000 gallons (284,000 L) of water; reserved for any emergency.  (Photo at end.)



San Francisco Painted Ladies

With neighborhood houses typically built abutting each other, in a region that only gets rainfall during half the year (if that), this city relies heavily on their fire department.


San Francisco is only 47 square miles in size, yet it has 51 neighborhood fire stations. SFFD Wikipedia info. 



I researched residential fires in San Francisco for my recently published mystery novel. I learned a lot about the devastation of fire. I visited fire stations, peered in, took notes, talked to firefighters.

First fire engine built in Calif., from 1855. Courtesy SFFD.

One day I visited San Francisco’s Fire Museum. It is a small add-on section to a busy fire station, located in the Pacific Hts. neighborhood. Museum info here.


That day they were getting ready for a public event, and the station was lively with firefighters moving fire trucks, preparing the space for visitors.



The glass case displays were loaded with memorabilia, old equipment and hoses, and old photos. There were numerous old trucks, shiny and in mint condition.


About a dozen people were moving a big old truck, and as they did, they proudly reminisced about using that truck to help in “the Loma Prieta” (large 1989 earthquake) when all the newer trucks were out fighting fires.


I stood on the sideline, intrigued by it all, staying out of the way. They talked in a language that was filled with codes and details of which I was unfamiliar. They moved with swiftness and strength, and worked together in comradery and unity.


I have more respect than ever for firefighters. They carry a heavy responsibility, these warriors of fire; and they do so with grace and pride.


Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified

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This intersection has an underground water vault. Photo: Travis Grathwell,



58 thoughts on “Fighting Fire in San Francisco

  1. Jet I have goosebumps reading through the details of the catastrophic fires. I certainly know about the historical event but the amount of loss is devastating to read. As to the underground vaults of water I had absolutely no idea. I will definitely be on the watch for them the next time we are in San Francisco. Very best wishes to you and Athena. I hope you are having a marvelous summer.

    • As a frequent visitor to the Bay Area, you know how tinder-dry it can get here, Sue. Next time you’re toolin’ around in SF, I am certain you’ll see the brick circles, now that you know what to look for. I hope I can give you a tour again. Thanks for your kind words and wishes, my friend, and yes, I am having a marvelous summer. Back-to-back BBQs this weekend.

    • That’s right, Craig, the fire dept. at that time, and other fire depts. as well, recommended dynamite by experienced experts for stopping the fire from spreading. Unfortunately, the expert in 1906 was the chief, who was unconscious and later died; so few people knew what to do. The army came in and they dynamited an east-west thoroughfare called Van Ness Avenue that was loaded with mansions; they had the mansions evacuated and then blew them all up. yikes. They’re still arguing about whether it was a good thing or a bad thing. Hard times. I’m glad you enjoyed the post, many thanks.

  2. It’s a wonderful tribute to these firemen. Thank you for sharing the historical info, Jet!
    Just recently, we lost a young fireman…

    • Thanks very much for your warm comment, Amy. It’s a terrible loss, I’m sorry to hear of it; fire can be so unpredictable even to the professionals and experts.

    • I love knowing that your grandmother was born that day, Cindy, such a memorable day. There were a few infants born around that day in SF and they came to the annual EQ celebrations for many years; the last survivors (infants at the time) died a few years ago. Glad to relay the brick circles. Happy for your visit, thank you.

  3. How intriguing, yet so very essential, to read of the underground vault of water in San Francisco – I had no idea – thank you for sharing!

    • Whenever I cross one of those intersections I think about the water below. It’s not on any pipe system, so that if the mains ever rupture again, there will still be all those tanks available. Glad to share the cool, watery facts; thanks so much, Joanne.

  4. Great post Jet, thank you for the education. I have watched a video of that earthquake, taken just days or hours after. A very primitive video of course, possibly the first ever. Wish I could remember the website. Such an amazing city.

    • I’m glad you were able to stop by today, John; because I was thinking of you when I wrote this post, due to your recent post and our discussion about thanking the firefighters when you see them. On the SFFD website there’s a link you can click on for thanking the firefighters. I thought that was interesting. Many thanks~~

  5. Fascinating, as always. I enjoy the unusual historical lessons you share with us – and the lovely photos of your delightful and enterprising city.

  6. Another fascinating post! What planning in having those water vaults. As Tom and other commentators have said, firefighters are superheroes. I remember the gripping opening to GGG, with the fire that launched subsequent events!
    Really enjoyed the colourful photographs of firetrucks, boats and the neighbourhoods – what a beautiful city!
    Thanks, Jet, and enjoy your weekend.

    • I enjoyed your comments and really appreciate your remarks on GGG, the post, and the photos, pc. As always, it’s wonderful to have you stop by, my friend. Am enjoying the weekend, lots of baby birds are about now; I hope you and Mrs. pc are enjoying your weekend too. 🙂

  7. thank you for your cooling words
    and helping us be safe
    from going up in flames, Jet!
    quite a hazard in such
    a densely built & populated area.
    anyone looking for an SF mystery
    should get your book, asap 🙂

  8. Very interesting reading, Jet! I am happy for the density of fire stations – learning from history is a great thing. I am glad that our fire station here at home is right at the corner of the salt marsh, one block from where we live.

  9. I love fire trucks and equipment. There’s something very personal about how firemen save lives, earning a big dose of my respect, Jet.
    I liked the informative parts which do give me chills and a sense of fire’s power and danger!

      • I’m glad you have this first-hand experience of checking these out, Jet. I am curious and did get a photo of a firetruck with its ladder up when they were showing children at our first Friday (closing blocks off for activities.) Once a year, the focus is on local heroes. 🙂 The focus rotates from in February, love and candy at the shops, Spanish bands and Mexican dancing in May for Cinco de Mayo. . .

  10. thank you for a wonderful post Jet, reminding us of how firefighters heroically save lives. i do have high respect for them and they should never be forgotten. what a great tribute! 🙂

  11. I have a horror of fire, Jet, as I was involved in an incident as a baby. It’s great to see the efforts that have been made in San Francisco. They’re brave lads, those fire fighters.

    • Yes, they are brave lads and lasses. I’m happy to say the SF Fire Chief is a woman. A horror of fire is a tough thing to live with, Jo, I hope you are surrounded by capable and excellent firefighters. My thanks, as always, for your visit and comment — always a pleasure.

    • Thanks very much for your warm comment, Barbara. I enjoyed learning more about the firefighters in my research for this post and novel, and I’m happy to share the info, glad you liked it.

  12. Another fun and informative post! It seems I always learn at least one gem by visiting your blog. San Francisco is such a great place for these fascinating stories!

    • So wonderful to get your message, Gunta, thanks so much for your kind words. One of the things I love most about San Francisco is just what you said: it is a great place for fascinating stories. I hope your week is terrific.

    • Whenever I’m walking through one of those intersections with the brick circles, I cross the street with a sense of safety. There are so many people who have lived and died before us, it is comforting to know they have used their knowledge and experience to help the next generations. That is, as you say Draco, a true hero.

  13. Great story and pictures, thanks. We were in SF last year and we enjoyed it very much! Additionally I was very impressed by the fire fighting vehicles when I was there. Some of them had such a massive length!


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