The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization by Thomas Homer-Dixon

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Excerpts from The Upside of Down

Prologue: Firestorm
San Francisco, Thursday, April 19, 1906

The wind had shifted. Now the inferno turned its attention westward. Block by block, it savaged some of the city's finest houses. As the mayor, chief of police, and members of the municipal council retreated from building to building before the flames, they decided the city would make one last stand.

The final line of defense, they announced, would be Van Ness Avenue — a broad residential boulevard bisecting San Francisco from north to south. The street lay directly in the fire's path: if they could use it as a firebreak, they might be able to halt the advance. But if this last effort failed, what remained of the city would surely be lost.

Early the previous day, an enormous earthquake had shattered the city's core, snapping cast-iron water mains like twigs, toppling thousands of chimneys, and upending coal-burning stoves and boilers. Electrical utility poles fell over, bringing down live wires in showers of sparks. Gas lines ruptured. Kerosene and oil poured out of burst fuel tanks. In seconds, sparks and fuel combined, and dozens of fires exploded across the city. Then, energized by the wood in the city's buildings, small fires coalesced into mighty firestorms. Even when firefighters could maneuver around the piles of earthquake debris in the streets, they found no water in the hydrants.

By noon on the 19th, the fire had destroyed almost ten square kilometers of the city east of Van Ness Avenue. The financial district, Market Street, and the district south of Market were smoking ruins...

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