July 08, 2011

Firefighting with Steam

A week ago, I felt that I was posting too much about fire. But I maybe I should just "embrace the suck," as they say in the Army, and blog about fire. After an inch of rain yesterday, I feel briefly optimistic.

So now for something completely different. Steam-powered fire engines--not generally used in wildland fire-fighting.

I used to see photos of these smoke-belching affairs drawn by horses (and by motorized tractors for a brief time in the early 20th century) and wondered how they operated.

Thanks to (a) dedicated tinkerers who like to restore old machinery and (b) YouTube, you can see how it went.

First video: Atmosphere. An 1890s fire battalion in Brooklyn, N.Y., leaves the house (sound added in recent years, clearly).

Next, some historical and technical background:

Finally, a modern demonstration of a steam-powered pump, this one originally run to ruin during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire (the speaker says "1909," but that's a slip of the tongue). The operator had to stay fully attentive to the engine at all times!

One question still remains: I understand that the horses were stabled next to or behind the apparatus, trained to come out of their stalls and stand in position while the harness was lowered onto them. But since you could not have unvented coal fires burning inside the station house, how did they get quick ignition?

Maybe the coal was pre-soaked with kerosene, and one man tossed in a match while the horses were being harnessed. Time spent heating the boiler hot enough to make steam was always the limiting factor when minutes were precious. Otherwise, in terms of volume and pressure, the steam-powered pumps did well.

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