Fires were a common occurrence growing up in New Plymouth. With many chimneys and odd ways of heating, houses often burned. Common, and we had no real firefighters.   Rural fire fighting is much more difficult than urban firefighting.  There usually is a distance/response problem, and, of course there are no fire hydrants or available water. The town had merchants who manned a volunteer effort until finally getting a fire dep’t.  The town fire dep’t could never have responded to farms.  Our closest neighbor’s house burned three times while I was growing up.  Before electricity came in 1938 we used lanterns and lamps with glass chimneys — these glass chimneys got very ho t– tipped over often, and you could not always see how hot — so many fires resulted.  We had no fire insurance back then.  In such cases, the family usually moved into their barn or chicken coop while re-building.  Neighbors would do a “barn-raising” effort, groups of them combining to help erect another house quickly.  The town had many bldgs burned over the years.  Looking back on a town built of wood, it is remarkable how it did not all burn, as many towns did in pioneer times.

Most of us burned stove wood gotten from the Emmett mill. Slabbed wood cut off the sides of logs to make them square for sawing.  This waste was dirt cheap, practically for the asking.  However the pine feeding the lumber yard contained a lot of pitch, lots of creosote and other flammables.  These flammables especially flowed down the tree to the butt of the tree.  Mills usually cut off the tree butt containing all these things, or left it as a tree stump. So the cheap waste wood contained these flammables in abundance.

The early settlers could burn poplars — planted by the thousands and copiced for firewood. Copicing is cutting the tree down leaving a stump. From the stump spring 5-6 new trucks.  Each can continue to be harvested, leaving the roots to again send up “suckers” to form new harvest-able wood.  Back in early 1900s you could find many thousands of these old poplars, with the original trunk gone, rotted away, and surrounded by 4-6 major trunks.  If these were cut as well, then the earlier cut and now rotted remains produced a sort of cave within the tree stump; Roadsides would be lined with these trees with multiple trunks surrounding now hollow interiors.

Copicing is a long tradition in Europe and Britain.  You could see these copiced poplars routinely along Payette Valley roads — every farm had them.  Whole fence rows were given over to them.  However these trees 40-60 feet high competed with crops, shaded crops out, or filled close ditches with roots making cleaning very difficult.  Poplars are easily started.  In fact, many were inadvertently planted.  My dad cut a poplar log to make a cloths line. The posts at both ends grew roots and became trees!  We had these two inadvertent trees for over 40 years.  New Plymouth has shallow ground water easily enabling such plantings.  Just cut a limb, and stick it in the  ground and it grows!

However, there is a problem with poplars. They must be cut down and chopped or cut into stove wood.  And, they burn fast with low heat.  That equals a lot of work for small benefit.  So the New Plymouth residents instead hauled waste lumber from the Emmett mill, and fueled their stoves with “pitchy” wood.  As this wood burns, it releases gaseous pitch and creosote, which goes up the stovepipe chimney, cools slightly, comes  out of its gaseous phase and gets deposited onto the stove pipe.  This is not a new phenomenon — has been known for centuries — and produced a trade known as chimney sweeps. These folk cleaned soot and the flammables out of chimneys before it could harm anyone.  But, New Plymouth never had a chimney sweep that I heard of.  Instead, the pitch built up until the stove got a tad too hot.  This high heat would ignite the pitch deposited in the chimney (which burns at a much higher temperature). This results in a “runaway” fire — very hot — and spewing hot embers everywhere.  A stove pipe will get cherry red, then turn nearly white hot.  I have seen it firsthand when our own stove did it. It produces a very loud roar sound like a jet engine, as it sucks in air thru the stove.  An uncontrollable blaze that cannot be confined to just a simple 5″ stovepipe. It could have been eliminated with simply cleaning.  However, pioneering folk are very busy earning a living and this was neglected.  A simple chimney sweep could have saved most of New Plymouth’s buildings at a huge savings.

Fires like a “chimney fire” can still be contained if the stove pipe is enclosed into a brick chimney, kept a distance from anything flammable.  However, early buildings all used cedar shingles — one of the most flammable of all — and any sparks to get to it fall into the small spaces, creating a perfect environment for a fire.  Sloppy chimneys, where the mortar is not done properly, allowing chunks of mortar to fall out, and then tucked into an attic where no one goes, or can get to and you have the beginnings of a fire accident.  Also building towns out of wood mean it is simple for the entire town to burn to the ground — and often happened.  New Plymouth did — eventually — learn to put up fire walls of brick to keep one store burning from igniting the next and next.  If you note the first bldgs in New Plymouth — most did not have firewall protection from a neighbor.

There was another high fire risk in New Plymouth.  When electricity came thru in 1938 (fed rural electrification) then the countryside had to be retrofitted with wire. The population were not electricians — in fact none were available.  So novice installations meant fire traps.  I remember my dad wiring our house with a single bulb.  The wires were placed in the attic — two insulated wires on porcelain standoffs separated 10-12″ inches.  But, the insulation was like licorice candy to mice. So poorly placed wiring, perhaps getting wet from roof leak, and many other hazards caused more fires.  Today, if a house in New Plymouth is of this vintage, then you can easily see such wiring, unless, as is often the case, it has been replaced.

Leave a Reply