The Phoenix Response

Source: Premier of Alberta Flickr page, https://www.flickr.com/photos/premierofalberta/26839413055/

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Four days after a gigantic fire destroyed great swaths of the Miramichi region of New Brunswick in 1825 — the largest recorded forest fire ever on the eastern seaboard — a local committee gathered to draft a call for help to the colonial government in Fredericton and the imperial one in London. Even before asking for medical aid, food, or provisions for the thousands of injured, orphaned, widowed, or displaced, the committee sought help to maintain social order. “The late calamity has exposed … private property, and want of a place of confinement wherein to secure defenders” – the jail and army barracks had burned down – “is likely to be productive of great disorder, and that an additional military force will be necessary to enable the magistrates to enforce the laws and to protect the property which has escaped destruction.”[1]

The fragility of the social order was assumed, in the wake of the fire. There were scattered reports of looting, even a claim that those who, fearful of the coming fire, had hauled their belongings out of their homes had lost more to theft than if they had left them where they were.[2] At a charity drive in London, the province’s agent Henry Bliss stated that “He much feared that the number of those who still had property left in the colony would hardly be sufficient to protect it from the attacks of the sufferers, rendered desperate by hunger and privation.”[3] Men took turns guarding stores, to make sure they were not broken into. There was talk of imposing a curfew (from the French couvre-feu, to cover fires for the night).

But anarchy never arrived, social order did not collapse. Two weeks after the fire, a Nova Scotia newspaper reported, “No destruction of property, no thefts, no violence had been committed at Chatham; and in Newcastle they had already commenced the erection of temporary buildings for the winter. … [T]he promises of hope were already beginning to dawn upon the mind with their cheering and consolatory light.”[4] Hope drew from a number of sources. For one, aid was beginning to flood in from the colonial and imperial centers – and, thanks to a concerted charity effort, from across the Western world. For another, while the fire had destroyed a great deal of forest in this forestry region, many trees had survived, and were just waiting to be cut down. And for another, optimism was simply in people’s best interest. Resiliency trumped anarchy. That the Miramichi region almost immediately began to rebound and rebuild convinced some who had given charity that the original descriptions of the disaster must have been exaggerated. The local relief committee took to documenting evidence not only of how it spent the donated funds, but also of the fire’s severity.

The “phoenix response,” named for the legendary bird reborn from its own ashes, is a well-observed phenomenon in disaster studies.[5] Survivors frequently come to interpret the disaster as an opportunity to show strength of character and to create a community better than the one they lost. The most sustained and appreciative exploration of this phenomenon is Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster. Solnit opens her book in Halifax in fall 2003, having arrived shortly after Hurricane Juan has blown through. Her local guide describes the storm’s wake: “There was no electricity, all the stores were closed, no one had access to media. The consequence was that everyone poured out into the street to bear witness. Not quite a street party, but everyone out at once – it was a sense of happiness to see everybody even though we didn’t know each other.” Solnit is struck powerfully by her guide’s joy. Her book explores what people learn about themselves and their communities through disaster, and how they and their communities change. “The prevalent human nature in disaster,” she suggests, “is resilient, resourceful, generous, empathic, and brave.”[6] Other scholars have been decidedly more wary of the phoenix response. Christof Mauch asks whether North Americans’ post-catastrophe optimism may not actually make us downplay the significance of catastrophe, and thus more likely both to accept risk and not plan for disaster.[7] (If you’ve got lemons, sure, make lemonade. But does knowledge of the existence of lemonade make you more likely to have lemons?) Also, seeing survivors apparently moving on may make it easier for more distant observers to forget about the tragedy or not take lessons from it. As Mauch reminds us, the memory of disasters, like the disasters themselves, has an epicenter and a periphery.

Whether a sign of resolution or naiveté, the phoenix response seems above all human – a mode of thought that helps people accomplish what at first seems impossible: moving forward. William Abrams co-owned a lumber company and shipbuilding firm on the Miramichi. He and his wife Sarah survived the great fire of 1825, but they were, in the parlance, sufferers. William’s companies sustained huge losses. Much worse, William and Sarah’s 1-year-old daughter Ann and 2.5-year-old son William Harvey were burned badly and died a month after the fire. And yet the Abrams stayed in the Miramichi and rebuilt. A local newspaper soon carried advertisements announcing that Wm. Abrams & Co. would “continue to take risks” on account of the West of Scotland Fire Insurance Co. And in June 1826, Abrams’ company launched a 386-ton vessel on the same spot on the river that it had lost two others. The new ship was, of course, christened the Phoenix.

We will see many of the people of Fort McMurray move back and rebuild, and we will be impressed and inspired, but we shouldn’t be entirely surprised.[8]

 

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[1] Motion from “Official Session” held at Chatham, 11 October 1825, 32e/1825 file, RS13 (Provincial Secretary), Provincial Archives of New Brunswick.

[2] For example, A Narrative of the Late Fires at Miramichi …. (Halifax: PJ Holland, 1825) CIHM 37196, 19; New Brunswick Royal Gazette, 18 October 1825.

[3] London Times, 12 November 1825.

[4] Novascotian, 26 October 1825.

[5] See, for example, Margaret Hindle Hazen and Robert M. Hazen, Keepers of the Flame: The Role of Fire in American Culture, 1775-1925 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992); Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster (New York: Penguin, 2009); and Christof Mauch, “The Phoenix Syndrome: Natural Catastrophes in American History and Culture,” Jadavpur University Journal of History, vol.30, 2014-15: 19-38.

[6] Solnit, 3-4, 8.

[7] Mauch, esp. 29-31.

[8] Prior to my submission of this post, the NiCHE editorial team discussed whether it was appropriate to write about the Fort McMurray fire while it still burned. Was writing about the Fort, or fire, or climate change exploiting a disaster? I understand that reticence — all the more so because I have been out of Canada since the fire began, and feel even more distant from it than I would otherwise.

Here is why I decided to write. On 5 May, Macleans.ca published a short piece arguing that the Fort McMurray fire’s “magnitude and response can be put into context by examining the past.” Its 61-word opening paragraph on the Miramichi Fire contains, by my count, 9 errors of fact. That’s a lot. People will attempt to understand the Fort McMurray fire’s historical context — and it’s to their credit that they see value in doing so. I’m a historian, so I should be able to help provide some of that context.

This post is my opinion, and doesn’t reflect the opinions of the NiCHE editorial team or anyone else. If you think I shouldn’t have written about fire or mentioned Fort McMurray, please submit a Comment below. If you think something else should have been written, please write it.

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I am a Professor in the Department of History at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, Canada. I was Director of NiCHE, 2004-15. You can reach me at amaceach@uwo.ca.

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