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Fire, from "The Towering Inferno," a film with Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Fred Astaire and Faye Dunaway

Subthemes: Government Regulations, Firefighters, Infamous Urban Conflagrations

“The Towering Inferno” tracks a fire that ravaged a massive skyscraper on the night of its gala opening. Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway, and a litany of other actors struggle to respond to a modest smolder from shoddy wiring that spread dramatically to engulf much of the brand-new building and threatened to kill the celebrants. Here is a clip from the movie. Let’s tease out other themes of Fire.

Government Regulations: The Federal government, states, and local entities regulate many practices in an effort to prevent fires. EKU Online explains that the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 “led to the first legally mandated fire protection protocols for American business owners. The protocols required all interior doors to open out, no exterior doors being locked during working hours, sprinkler systems installed where more than 25 employees worked, and regular fire drills.” The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) continues to oversee and set Federal requirements to protect employees from fires. For example, governmental agencies regulate the storage, handling, and use of combustible and flammable liquids, fire-retardant material, non-flammable clothes, warning signs about the risk of fire, and standards for fire extinguishers, fire escapes, fire doors, smoke detectors, and alarms. Certificates of occupancy for residences ensure that electrical wiring and chimneys satisfy local standards.

Firefighters: The National Fire Protection Association “estimates there were … 1,115,000 career and volunteer firefighters in the United States in 2018. Of the total number of firefighters 370,000 (33%) were career firefighters and 745,000 (67%) were volunteer firefighters.” Although the 62 on-duty firefighter deaths recorded in 2020 not related to COVID-19 was higher than the 48 fatalities reported for 2019, it is in line with the average death toll over the previous five years, when between 60 and 70 firefighters died annually while on-duty. Meanwhile, the cost of sophisticated equipment for fighting fires has flared. A ladder truck, for example, costs in the range of $550,000 to $650,000. The typical life span for a fire engine is 10 years and for a ladder truck 15 years. When firefighters leave the fire station, often so too do police and emergency medical technicians.

Infamous Urban Conflagrations: Among the notorious conflagrations in major cities, many people would include Rome (64 AD), London (1666), Chicago (1871), Boston (1872), San Francisco (1906), Kanto (Tokyo Japan area, 1923), and the horrific Cocoanut Grove tragedy in 1941. These epic disasters started either by accident or following an earthquake (San Francisco and Kanto). Widespread fires started by incendiary bombs in World War II immolated tens of thousands of non-combatants, such as in Tokyo and Dresden (not to mention two atomic blasts), and gutted their targets. Dresden suffered approximately 25,000 dead from the two days of bombing. Lately, out-of-control wildfires have swept through built-up areas such as Paradise, CA. With global warming upon us, wildfires will pillage the land more frequently with more virulence, even creating their own “weather.”


An electrical spark on in a closet high up in a new building grew to devastate much of the skyscraper. Scene after scene shows the destructiveness, unpredictability, and deviousness of flames. Despite brave firefighters and fire prevention techniques claimed to be up to code, much of the skyscraper blazed, although it did not harm nearby buildings.

If you are interested in further thoughts on the concept of Thinking, consider other subthemes that don’t fit as directly to the poem, painting, rock song, and movie written about in this series. For an overview, this article explains Themes from Art or click on the navigation bar, About.

We invite you to read about other movies discussed on this blog, and their themes. Here they are:

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