OUR NATIONAL FIRE WASTE.
THE fire loss question is a subject that is attracting growing attention and bids fair, if present conditions continue, to demand that consideration which Congress thus far has refused to give it. The total burnings by fire in the United States aggregated in 1875 somewhere in the neighborhood of $78,000,000, in 1876 the loss was about $65,000,000, and since that year there has been nearly a steady increase each year in the amount of property burned, until high water mark, $110,000,000, was reached in 1884. If this were indeed the high water mark for time to come, some comfort might be derived from the knowledge that the aggregation of waste was not growing ; but the indications are to the contrary, and the losses thus far this year give rather a discouraging aspect to the situation. The statement is not too strong to make that the annual losses by fire are steadily increasing at a rate approaching geometrical progression. The Chronicle Fire Tables place the aggregate loss of property by fire in the United States in the year 1880 at $74,643,400; in 1881, $81,280,900; 1882, $84,505,024; 1883, $100,149,228 ; 1884, $110,008,611. Considerable has been written, by way of comment and comparison, illustrating what the destruction by fire—the absolute annihilation—of so much value each year means. In these days of great financial institutions, whose millions of assets are daily paraded in print, and when the accumulated wealth of hundreds of individuals now runs to tens of millions each, the popular idea of the immensity of what $110,000,000 consigned to the flames in a single year actually means is apt to be dwarfed. It should be clear to the mind always that accumulated millions and the interest on accumulated millions have a vastly different significance ; and this having been said by way of preface, let it be thoughtfully considered that the $110,008,611 burned in the United States last year—so much national wealth altogether obliterated, principally by carelessness and recklessness—represents the annual interest at current rate on a principal of $2,750,215,275. Thus the people of this country, largely through inexcusable carelessness or, what is worse, criminal negligence, year after year destroy the productive value of capital equal to fully one-sixth of the total assessed value of all property in the United States, land, buildings and personal estate. This large amount of capital remains in a state of stagnation, producing nothing from year to year. A fair estimate being made of the market value of all property comprising the total capital of the country, it can be affirmed that the America’n people cast to the flames and charge to waste fully a tenth of their hardearned profits each year. Some statisticians give the ratio of fire losses to the profits of all industry as onesixth. Discouraging to say, also, in periods of financial stringency like that through which we are now passing, the fire losses seem to increase inversely with the relaxation in business interests, for at such time the temptation to incendiarism is strongest; and, on the other hand, under the impetus of business prosperity, the various devices and methods introduced for saving labor and enhancing production all seem to tend towards making the fire hazard greater and augmenting fire losses.
It is a peculiar, yet seemingly natural idea held by the masses, that insured property burned represents loss of little account, for the burned-out individual is immediately reimbursed by the insurance companies, which are supposed to pay out such money without missing it. The public should be educated up to the economy of the insurance business, and to the understanding that the companies are benevolent institutions in so far only as they relieve the embarrassments of individuals in times of great emergency by distributing the burden of fire loss among the community. Every fire that happens, therefore, is a direct tax on the community, no matter whether the property be insured or not, and it has been estimated, on the basis that 5,000,000, or one-tenth of the entire population, are workers or producers, the fire losses impose a tax of about $20 on each laboring citizen annually. It is such truths as these brought home to the minds of everyone that should take root and bear fruit in the exercise of greater care looking to the prevention of fires. All persons well acquainted with fire matters acknowledge that the tendency of Americans is to live in a hap-hazard, reckless way, making little effort to prevent the occurrence of fires, and that they therefore have to pay large sums to maintain fire departments for extinguishing the conflagrations that carelessness invites. And right here is the great secret of the heavy losses in this country. Instead of being educated to extreme caution to prevent fires, the masses are taught by example that carelessness, recklessness and maliciousness incur no penalties, but, on the contrary, frequently bring substantial rewards. Wc boast of having the best fire departments in the world, and rightly so, and yet in such pride confess our weakness ; for in Europe, where better methods of building prevail, the laws on the subject arc more stringent, and the habit of care is more pronounced ; there they have comparatively few fires, and therefore do not, to the extent that we do in America, need such excellent fire departments. There the watchword appears to be fire prevention; here, we seem only to advocate fire suppression.
In considering the great fire waste that is going on around us, it is a matter of general interest to ascertain in what parts of the United States the greatest amount of burnings occur, and such information is of particular import to insurance companies. We have devoted much time to compiling the accompanying tables, containing information from different sources, showing the proportion of burnings in the different parts of the country. Column 1, giving the amount of property burned in 1884, was compiled from The Chronicle Fire Tables, and columns 2 and 3 are taken from the United States census for 1880. The ratios of insurance loss td premiums in the different States arecorhpiled from The Spectator’s tables of Fire Insurance by States. It might be proper to say that, in considering the ratios involving the assessed value of property in the country, it should be understood that such valuation includes land as well as buildings, and that assessed valuations range in different localities from one-half to three-quarters of the market value ; but these two elements practically offset each other, and their bearing does not materially affect the ratio of fire-loss shown in a comparative way for the different States. It is the first time that such a comprehensive and concise exhibit of the ravages of fire has been presented, the arrangement of groups by States, and in connection with the total property valuation and the population statistics, making a valuable table.
PROPERTY BURNED IN 1884, BY GEOGRAPHICAL CLASSIFICATION.
We shall not attempt to institute comparisons regarding burned property in the various States, for space will not permit this. By scanning the tables, the intelligent reader will be able to trace out many interesting comparisons, such as, for instance, the noticeable fact that the two great manufacturing States, New York and Massachusetts, each suffered a fire loss last year per capita identical in amount, $3.10, and both of these States in their own group lost more by fire than their sister States experienced. It will be noticed that last year the fire waste cost each man, woman and child in the New England and Middle States about $2.60; in the Southern States the tax was about $1.40; in the Western States, $2.30, and in the Territories, $5.70. It being generally understood that in the South and West, and especially in the South, the fire loss is greater, comparatively speaking, than elsewhere, the fact that the property burned per capita was lower than in other sections might tend to confusion. But it should also be borne in mind that the South is the least wealthy section of the United States. The value of property owned per capita in the New England States averages $661 ; in the Middle States, $474 ; in the South, $155 ; in the Western States, $334, and in the Territories, $212. Thus, if the citizens of the South can afford to have each man, woman and child taxed $1.40 for carelessness or recklessness in the care of their property, the inhabitants of the Eastern States could equally afford to lose $5.88 per capita, and the Middle States could afford a similar tax of $4.20, whereas it is shown that the fire loss per capita is much less in those States. The ratio of the fire loss to the total property valuation was distributed last year among different groups of States as follows: in New England, 40 cents’ worth of property was burned for every $100 possessed; in the Middle States, 55 cents; in the Southern States, 91 cents; in the Western States, 70 cents; in the Territories, $2.69. In the entire United States, sixty-five cents in value was consumed of each $100 of property. Thus it appears that each year a wasteful people render to the national bonfire more than one-half per cent of the value of all property in the country, embracing improved and unimproved real estate and personal property. With the rates of interest rapidly declining, as the history of the past decade has shown, the country cannot well afford to surrender so much wealth to utter waste; yet present conditions indicate that the fire losses are on the increase.
—While attempting to cross a railroad track at Salem, Mass., July 8, ex-Chief Wm. Chase was instantly killed by a passing train. He was seventy-five years of age and a born fireman. He took a great interest in the Salem Fire Department, and was one of the engineers from April g, 1849, to January 22, 1861. Though a lover of peace, he was still a brave man, and twice in the performance of his duty was severely injured. At the Franklin building fire in 1S45, his leg was broken, and again, as chief engineer, at the Franklin building fire, October 21, i860, a wall fell upon him and again he suffered from a broken limb. He was chief engineer in 1S58, 1859 and i860, and was instrumental in purchasing the first improved four-wheeled hose carriage, William Penn No. 3, still in service in the department. It was during his administration, also in i860, that the first steamer was purchased and named for him. Steamer No. 1 (old No. 2) in South Salem still bears his name, although steamer No. 2 (old Chase) honorably carried it for eighteen years, and, like its godfather, proved one of the most honest machines ever put in any department. Mr. Chase was the oldest surviving ex-chief engineer. His funeral took place the following Friday, and was attended by Chief Osborne and the board of engineers, delegations from the several companies and many exfiremen.