A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

Where there’s smoke there’s a … conference about fire

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on June 26, 2007

I celebrate my academic nerdiness, I do. But sometimes even I see the humor in intellectual endeavor.

This CFP (call for papers) had me laughing out loud.

On the one hand, I can clearly see the historical value of a comparative look at pre-modern urban fires.

On the other hand, a conference about fire? that takes itself seriously enough to have devised the phrase “fire regime”?

Even as I laugh, I am wondering at the amazing skills of persuasion the conference organizers must have, to have secured such generous funding.

And wondering, too: how can I learn to be more like them? After all, I can envision all kinds of esoteric research questions that would be fun (with funding) to explore …

Flammable Cities:
Fire, Urban Environment and Culture in History

Conference at the
German Historical Institute, Washington, DC
May 15 – 17, 2008


Proposals are invited for an international multi-disciplinary conference on the comparative history of uncontrolled fire in large urban settlements around the world. Through a focus on fire, we hope to illuminate a host of issues surrounding urban cultures and the environmental significance of cities.

Preindustrial cities burned frequently. Yet many prospered, and some grew to populations of over a million inhabitants. Although new building and extinguishing technologies and the rise of fire insurance fundamentally altered the relationship between cities and fire beginning in the seventeenth century, many cities remained largely wood-built into the twentieth century. Some still are.

The English-language historiography on urban fire history is strongly weighted toward Europe and the United States. The conveners therefore look forward particularly to contributions on cities in the non-Western world in addition to proposals on European and North American cities. Comparison of differing urban morphologies, types of building material, social systems, cultural attitudes, and methods for coping with disaster in diverse locations should make this conference a significant first step toward a truly global history of urban fire.

We seek fresh thinking on a range of interconnected questions including:

  1. Architecture. Why were flammable materials used and until when did they continue to be used? What was the relationship between fire hazard and city planning?
  2. Habitation and urban morphology. How did density and other aspects of construction and habitation encourage or inhibit the spread of fires?
  3. Environment and economy. What were the effects of climate and seasonal weather patterns? How did urban fires affect rural areas, as sources of lumber and fuel, as part of the urban economy, etc.?
  4. Social factors contributing to fire. How did fires start? Were there incentives to start uncontrolled fires? What role did changes in the use of controlled fire have on the problem of uncontrolled fire?
  5. Social effects of fire. Who was most affected? Who lost most and who benefited? How did citizens cope with fire?
  6. Management of fire. Who fought fires and how? How did government and urban residents cope with the risk of uncontrolled fire and with the aftermath of large fires? How were fires recorded? How were they understood? What was done about arson?
  7. Politics and social change affecting fire regimes. What was the impact of war in regimes of fire management? What social, political, or economic factors brought about change in the regime of fire management?

Of course, individual papers cannot address all of these questions—nor is this list intended to exclude other possible questions. We are interested, however, in papers that will draw from the archive of particular cities and at the same time offer broad insights on the historical relationships between urban habitation, urban governance and urban environments. We also encourage proposals that incorporate transregional or global economic and environmental issues.

By addressing a common core group of questions for global comparison, we hope to be able to map regional patterns and determine in a nuanced way for the first time what roles climate, economy, government and culture have played in fire regimes in different parts of the world. Presenters must commit themselves to intensive collaboration with the editors and other participants toward publication of a coherent and wide-ranging global study.


3 Responses to “Where there’s smoke there’s a … conference about fire”

  1. Well, there’s probably going to be quite a few people who study Chicago in the 19th Century. We still talk about the fire, today.

    I might have reacted in a similar way as you had a Chicago fire fighter who is a member of the International Fire Fighting Association not been in an Arabic course with me. He was studying Arabic so he could teach Iraqis how to fight fires. Before talking with him, I never realized how much I took fire fighting and prevention for granted, and how pivotal fire fighting was in advancing quality of life.

  2. mmm yes, very true about Chicago (let me know if you want to get together for a “Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight” singalong). the conference focuses on fires in pre-industrial cities, though, which excludes both Chicago and SF.

    of course, if you want to organize a conference around more recent fires, I’m sure the organizers of this one would be most supportive!

  3. harri3tspy said

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who laughs at CFPs. This reminds me of a music conference I once attended. Someone was giving a paper about the travels of a famous composer’s dead body, which spent several months touring Europe (presumably with some assistance) before being interred. In the Q & A, someone noted that there were a number of composers for whom this was true and perhaps we should consider a conference devoted to these travelling bodies. I snorted loudly with laughter (I really couldn’t help myself). Unfortunately, the person who’d made the comment was serious. Even more unfortunately, he had just interviewed me for a job. Needless to say, that was one interview I didn’t get. Oh well. Perhaps I should start working on a paper proposal about fire-related music.

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