The Hinckley Firestorm of 1894

Photos of the town of Hinckley, Minnesota before and after the fire in 1894

Hinckley, MN, 1894. The top photo was taken before the fire consumed the town. The photo on the bottom was taken after the fire. Photos from A History of the Great Minnesota Forest Fires, Sandstone, Mission Creek, Hinckley, Pokegama, Skunk Lake by Elton T. Brown.

For Building Safety Month, which was in May, I looked for some books I could read to help me better understand disasters and resiliency. After compiling a list of about four or five books, I started this month on my reading. The first book I read was Under a Flaming Sky, The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894 by Daniel James Brown. It tells the story of how a hot, dry weather period and practices of the logging industry converged to create and feed a devastating fire that burned its way north through Minnesota in early September of 1894. And it tells the story of the people who faced that fire, some who survived and many who did not.

The book was a little slow at first as it introduced people and set the stage for the fire event. However, once I got to the point where the fire was roaring towards the town, I could not put it down and had to read to the end. Looking back, I liked that the author weaved together the people and facts of the town, weather, geology and topography of the area, fires in general, and the railroad. All of this helped me better understand the event and its impacts which were horribly devastating.

Skunk Lake where many people tried to shelter from the fire. Photo from Memorials of the Minnesota forest fires in the year 1894 : with a chapter on the forest fires in Wisconsin in the same year by William Wilkinson

There seems to be several books of contemporary information about the fire along with others written more recently. Below are just a few which includes the one I read. The older ones can be read online for free, but newer books may need to be purchased or checked out from a local library. If your local library does not have a book, you can also request it from the National Emergency Training Center Library through an interlibrary loan:

A History of the Great Minnesota Forest FiresSandstone, Mission Creek, Hinckley, Pokegama, Skunk Lake by Elton T. Brown

Memorials of the Minnesota forest fires in the year 1894 : with a chapter on the forest fires in Wisconsin in the same year by William Wilkinson (this book has several photos of the area and several of the people impacted by the fire)

From the Ashes: The Story of the Hinckley Fire of 1894 by Grace Stageberg Swenson 

Under a Flaming Sky, The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894 by Daniel James Brown

There is also a museum in Hinckley which tells the story of the fire. You can check out their website at If I make it to that area of Minnesota, I am definitely stopping by the museum to learn more.

Overall, the book made me more aware of the history of the area, weather patterns through history, and how human nature, preparedness, weather, and industries can impact resiliency. While the story is disturbing, I really liked the book and would recommend it to anyone interested in fires, disasters, and resiliency of both individuals and communities.


Winter Weather Safety – Resources for Braving the Storm of 2014

NOAA Frostbite Poster

Central and eastern sections of the U.S. have experienced snowfall and in some areas record cold over the last day or so. In a few locations, the temperatures have been so low that it has become dangerous to even be outside. However many government workers who provide essential services like police, fire, and snow removal still must brave the cold. If your government is looking for resources to help educate your community about staying safe during extreme weather conditions or if you are looking for information to give your workers to help them stay safe, check out the following agency sites for some winter survival tips:


Extreme Cold: A Prevention Guide to Promote Your Personal Health and Safety – this guide combines all of the key content of the CDC Winter Weather website into one downloadable, printable file. The CDC also has infographics, brochures, audiocasts, and other resources you can download and use in your public service messages. You can access this information through the sidebar at the link posted.



WINTER STORMS & EXTREME COLD site – here you can find many tips and advice for before, during, and after a winter storm

Winter Fire Safety – The US Fire Administration has some great resources to get the word out about fire safety during winter weather. They offer an infographic and social media messages and statistics you can post along with videos, audiocasts, and banners like the one at the bottom of this post.


NOAA: In addition to linking to NOAA's forecast page for your area, you can access and use the many resources NOAA offers on their site.


AAA: Tips for Safe Winter Driving Video – the video below was found on YouTube and can be embedded on websites or social media pages to offer citizens winter driving tips. You can also do a general search of YouTube to find other videos offering similar advice.


Additional Resources:

It's also useful to share the following types of information with the public. If you don't already have this information readily available, you can usually find it by searching on Google or Bing for the term and the name of your state or city and then offering the link for your local information. Also, some of this information may already be available from other departments at your city.


Warming Centers – It is common during winter storms to lose power. When that happens, you don't people wondering where they can go to keep warm. So it's useful to post this information ahead of time either on your website or on social media to remind people if they lose power, there are places they can go to avoid the cold. Here is the link to the one I found for our state by searching on Google for "warming centers" in Illinois: Keep Warm Illinois

Closings and Cancellations – extreme winter weather often results in closings and cancellations. If people can find out about these ahead of time, it might keep them from trying to head out in dangerous conditions. You can usually find a link to a site posting these by searching on Google or Bing and adding the name of your city or area in the search space. If your local radio or newspaper sites post a page with these, you can post a link to their page or you can always direct people to listen for closings and cancellations on a station if you know they announce them at regular times throughout the day. 

Pet Care Tips – The Humane Society offers tips and advice on how to take care of pets and wildlife during the winter. Providing a link to their site or to sites of similar organizations can help people keep their pets safe.

Frozen pipes or water meters – sometimes extreme cold can cause pipes or water meters to freeze. Because the process for dealing with this varies from agency to agency, you will need to prepare this information based on how your own area handles this type of issue. The typical type of advice to offer is:

  • How to find and turn off your main water valve in your home
  • Information about keeping drafts off pipes and other steps that can be taken to prevent frozen lines
  • Tips for thawing pipes
  • A number to call for help or information

Snow plowing updates – many communities now post regular updates on where plows are or which roads are open or closed and where there are parking bans. Again, this is highly localized information that is usually obtained by the public works department. Here are some examples of what other communities offer to keep citizens updated on road conditions and snow plowing operations:


Winter Storm Fire Safety


Paying the Price of Football 30 Years Later

Football Injury by Karpati GaborAfter watching two examples of extreme unnecessary roughness that appeared to risk permanent injury to two kids at a high school football game last night, I finally decided it was time to write a post about football and what it means to public works. Because our field is still very dependent on physical labor, it probably isn't a surprise that many employees in the public works field played high school football. Although, I had never really thought about what this would mean until I got into management. Many of the things we do can, at times, require significant physical dexterity, exertion, and strength. And when you become a supervisor you try to monitor your staff to be sure their condition is up to any task they are assigned to make sure they are safe and will not be injured. This is why it's a good idea to take any issues a person is having with their back, joints, or other body parts into consideration when assigning job duties. But, of course, part of the requirement for most public works jobs is to be able to continuously and regularly perform physically demanding tasks. So it becomes a balance of the employee trying to do what they can medically to remain in shape and the employer working with them as much as possible to accommodate them when they are experiencing a problem and need to recover.

While some ailments can show up as a natural part of aging, what I started to notice was that starting mainly in their 40s, the employees who played football in high school seemed to regularly have major problems with their backs, necks, joints, or other parts of their body. Over the years I heard many conversations between guys on our staff or guys out on construction in which they attributed specific problems they had to high school football – sometimes even to specific football injuries they remembered. Based on their stories, it also seemed their pain impacted not only their ability to work, but also their personal life on a regular and on-going basis. The pain and problems it caused seemed so bad for some, I had to wonder if they ever thought it was worth it. If they could go back knowing the end result, would they choose to spend a few years as a teenager playing a game and then pay the price for 20 to 40 years with regular and constant pain and challenges in completing everyday tasks? I realize when we are teenagers, it is very difficult to understand or even care about how we will feel when we are middle aged or older. And unfortunately our country embraces football like a religion so I doubt we will ever get to the point of actively warning kids about the permanent damage they can experience. But as a mother, it is definitely something I would not want or encourage for my child. I also know of other mothers whose children have been actively and regularly asked by coaches to participate in football because of their size and build, and those other families also chose to avoid the risk.

Again, because it is almost sacrilege in the U.S. to suggest anything negative about football, I have never really discussed my observations with others in the field. Nor have I seen anything in our industry literature about it. So I'd be interested in hearing from others if they have had similar observations or if they have a completely opposite outlook on this. I also wonder if people who are in non-physically demanding jobs who played high school football also suffer in the same manner as they age. 


Educating the Public about Bed Bugs

Bed Bugs in the Hall

As if we don't have enough problems in the world to worry about, now we are facing a resurgence of bed bugs in our communities. And while people may not agree on the cause of their rise from obscurity, they do seem to agree we need to find ways to control their spread. Part of this includes educating people on how to avoid transferring bed bugs from one place to another. Public agencies are typically tasked with offering this information, and the EPA and CDC do offer some educational materials. But the challenge in offering these types of materials is getting the public to pay attention and actually read the information. That's why we are highlighting a recently released training tool developed by the National Extension Initiative. It was set up in the virtual world of Second Life by LuAnn Phillips, through her avatar Thynka Little, to teach people about the bed bug problem. The benefit of setting up this training in a 3D environment is it allows the eXtension to take advantage of a more engaged and interesting delivery system that might better hold someone's attention.

So today I braved the virtual hotel filled with bed bugs to bring you this summary of the eXtension's bed bug training module:


I first arrived outside a hotel where I was able to pick up a notecard from a nearby sign. The instructions said to stop inside at the front desk. 

Arriving at the bed bug training site

Once inside, the hotel clerk welcomed me to the hotel, told me to grab my luggage and take an elevator to room 101. Of course he neglected to warn me about the bed bug infestation. Good thing I was tipped off to be on the look out.

Hotel clerk at the bed bug hotel

Here I am arriving at the floor where my room is located. If the signs in the hall weren't enough to caution me about the possibility of bed bugs, the large bed bug waiting for me at the end of the hall defnitely reminded me (the photo at the start of this story shows this bed bug welcome).

Here I am cautiously entering my hotel room. Looks nice enough but who knows what lurks behind the headboard.

Entering room 101 of the bed bug hotel

Once inside, I was told to put my luggage in the bathtub. It's the one place in the room least likely to have bed bugs. Then I set about exploring. First I checked out the area by the refrigerator where I found inspection tools that can be used to look for bugs in the room.
Bed Bug inspection tools
The next step was to check out the bed. Instructions there suggested looking through all the bedding and in all the crevices of the wood making up the headboard.  At one point I tried lying down on the bed and was told to "get off the bed and search the room for bed bugs."
Inspecting the bed for bed bugs
After getting up, I moved on to look through the night table and all the objects on it. While there, I also looked through the drapes and along the baseboard.
Inspecting the night stand, drapes, and baseboard

After checking out the chair and other furniture in the room, I also looked behind the art work on the wall and all over the luggage rack to make sure no bugs were hiding there.

Inspecting art work and luggage rack

After deciding the room was clean, I relaxed and watched a few of the videos on the television in the room. These offered more advice along with what should be done if bed bugs are found in the home.

Watching bed bug videos

Before I left, I read the final message which offered some useful information including a website where you can find reports of bed bugs in hotel rooms across the U.S.: and Then I took the "teleport" back to the front desk to report my findings to the desk clerk. He gave me this t-shirt after I mentioned the secret code I had learned.

Fortunately it was the only thing I brought back with bed bugs on it. I guess there was supposed to be a little bug hidden somewhere in the room that I never found, but I chose not to even try going back to look for it – just didn't want to take a chance having bed bugs infest my virtual home.

Bed bug t-shirt

Overall, I enjoyed the training as much as I could enjoy learning about a creepy little bug that wants to bite me and suck my blood. LuAnn and her organization have done a great job creating an interesting educational experience that other public agencies can take advantage of by offering it as a training option for their citizens.


Using Social Media to Promote Safety Around Trains

Melbourne Metro, a transit service based in Australia, has been successfully using social media to educate the public about safety around trains. Last year they produced this video called Dumb Ways to Die starring a cast of cute little characters and a catchy tune.

And now Melbourne Metro has released a game related to the video's theme. You can download the game for free at iTunes here: Dumb Ways to Die App. These efforts provide a good example of how an agency or company can make use of social media to promote a serious message in a fun way that leads people to actually pay attention. Based on their success, I could easily see how this particular campaign could now be extended to offline formats such as t-shirts, coffee mugs, etc which helps to further promote their message to an even wider population.

You can check out more about their campaign on the Dumb Ways to Die website



In 2011 in Australia there were 33 rail fatalities reported and 66 injuries (one region not reporting). According to the Federal Railroad Administration, in 2011 there were 673 people (non-employees/contractors) killed in train-related casualities in the United States. That same year 3,567 people (non-employees/contractors) were injured. 


April’s Recommended Reading List for Civil Engineers

Lately quite a few good resources have shown up in my email. So I've compiled a reading list for this month to showcase these new releases. The first publication I'd like to recommend is:

Minimizing Traffic-Related Work Zone Crashes in Illinois by The Illinois Center for Transportation at the University of Illinois 

If you are involved in work zone safety, particularly in Illinois, you'll definitely want to check this out. Although much of the report focuses on Illinois, in one section it also lists some of the statistics about work zone crashes in several different states. Below is a page from the document summarizing the advantages and disadvantages of the different work zone strategies. 

FHWA-ICT-12-017 26 page 9

The next item might not make it to most people's reading lists: Composting Animal Mortality Removed From Roads: A Pilot Study of Rotary Drum and Forced Aeration Compost Vessels by the Virginia Center for Transportation Innovation and Research

I'm including this report mainly because it highlights a topic that seems to be rarely discussed: disposal of animals picked up by highway departments. According to the report, "the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) removes an estimated 55,000 deer carcasses from its roadways each year at a cost of more than $4 million per year." That's a lot of money to spend on getting rid of dead animals. It's good to see that Virginia is investigating more efficient ways to handle this and sharing the information with others because every highway maintenance department deals with this issue.

And finally a newly released publication from the City of Chicago Department of Transportation: Complete Streets Chicago Design Guidelines.

This is a nicely laid out publication offering a look at how the Chicago DOT will incorporate a complete streets approach to transportation.

City of Chicago DOT Complete Street Design Guidelines


If you have any favorite publications of your own, we'd love to hear about them!