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.


Know your Risks – Week 1

This is week one, and we are starting by looking up our local hazard mitigation plan so we understand the risks we need to plan for.  The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) publishes an online map where you can check the status of your State’s plan and see if your county has a plan. Some states also have links on their websites to local plans. But if you can’t find your local plan for your city or county through this online map or through the state’s website, you can always call or email your local emergency management agency or police or fire departments and ask them where to find the plan.

Know Your Risks


Most plans are organized in a similar format. Below I’ve highlighted some of the important information and sections in your plan to check:

Did my community participate?

If you live in an incorporated area, find your county’s plan then check to see if the incorporated area in which you lived participated in that plan. For example here is the link to my county’s plan: Kane County Hazard Mitigation Plan. 

In our county’s plan, there is a listing on page 1-9 of the communities which participated, one of which is the community where I live. You can check your own county’s plan in a similar way. If you have access to a PDF of the plan, then you can quickly find the name of your community by hitting CTRL-F then typing in the name of your community and hitting ENTER to keep moving through the document for each mention of your community. If your community’s name is not there, then it may not have participated in the plan. But even if they did not participate, your county’s plan and even your state’s plan can explain the hazards which may impact your area.

History and Risk of Disasters

The first part of these plans typically give background or a history of natural hazards in that specific area. For example, in my county’s plan they list the years floods, blizzards, and tornadoes hit our area. In addition to looking at historical data, the plan analyzes the risk for future hazardous events. Again for my area, severe storms seems to be the hazard with the most severe risk. There is also an anticipated high risk of flooding and tornadoes.

The plan then looks at what can be done to address these risks and minimize their impacts to our area. For me, as a resident, I am interested in learning from the plan if my location increases my risk. The plan shows locations of floodplains, hazardous material storage, hospitals, emergency response facilities, schools, and critical transportation facilities like bridges. These are things I need to know to plan for how I could be impacted in a disaster and where I might be able get help or how I would evacuate if necessary.

National Flood Insurance Program

This particular plan also discusses the National Flood Insurance Program or NFIP and its implementation in our county. The reason this is important to me as a resident is if I either live in the floodplain or if I am at risk of flooding, having flood insurance can greatly increase my ability to recover from a flood. We will cover insurance in more depth in a few weeks. So the main thing we want to do this week is find out from our local government plan if our community participates in the NFIP and Community Rating System (CRS). I can tell from our plan, our community participates in NFIP, but not the CRS.

How is my community minimizing risk?

The majority of a community’s plan is focused on what the local government entity is going to do to minimize impacts from hazards. Fortunately in our county’s plan, there is also information an individual can use to minimize impacts on their own property. For example, Chapter 5 of their plan focuses on protection of property and explains different solutions which can be implemented. Next week when I am assessing my own risks and trying to determine what I might be able to do to prepare, I can refer back to these ideas. I also know from this how my local government might be able to help. For example, if my home regularly floods, perhaps I can contact my local government for assistance with either elevating my home or ask if they can apply for a grant to acquire and demolish my home. This would allow me to move to a safer area with less risk of flooding.

Forecasting and warning systems

There is also a section in our plan which explains the forecasting and warning system for each type of hazard. I need to know this so if I am under threat I know where I should look for information or how I will be warned of a risk. Most of us are familiar with tornado sirens, but our community also sends out warnings through a cell phone service and television and radio announcements. FEMA also has an app you can download which will let you know when bad weather is forecast for your area. I already have the FEMA app on my phone and have signed up for local alerts through our community’s website.

Download the FEMA app

There can be a lot of other elements or information to the plan. Your community’s plan may also have additional information not covered above. While you don’t have to read every word of it, it’s good to at least go over the sections I noted above since this information will help us next week as we develop our own plan.


Real Time Weather Mapping with mPING

mPING weather display

mPING, a real-time weather application, offers interactive insight into what is really going on with the weather in any location around the world. Users can access the app to either anonymously submit reports of current weather at their own location or view reports from others by downloading the app from iTunes or Google Play. All reports are shown through a repeating display over a specific time frame with an icon designating the specific type of weather such as rain, drizzle, snow, flooding, wind, and hail. The same map of the reports can also be accessed online at the mPING website. The image above is a screenshot from the mPING website of recent weather in the midwest. 

The app was launched in 2012 by developers from NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory and University of Oklahoma and the Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies to assist in fine-tuning weather forecasts. According the the NOAA website, NOAA National Weather Service (NWS) forecasters can access the reports on their office workstations. This allows them to "overlay mPING reports with other data such as radar and satellite observations to aid them in their decision-making." Also the site reports that "television stations and private weather companies have the opportunity to build the ability to submit and display mPING submissions in their own branded applications, making the information available to the public in new ways."

Some tips to keep in mind while viewing the map:

  • The time frame displayed is over a three-hour period, and the time clock in the upper right corner is set to Greenwich time. (As an aside, per the NWS website: "All aspects of meteorology are based upon a world-wide 24-hour clock called Zulu time (Z), more commonly called Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). You will notice all weather maps, radar, and satellite images all have their time expressed in "Z". The Zulu term stems from military usage while Coordinated Universal Time is the civilian term for this 24-hour clock.")
  • You can start and stop the play of the weather reports by clicking the play/pause button in the upper right. This is the top button in the vertical line of three buttons located under a layer button.mPING menu buttons
  • A legend for the icons can be found by clicking the middle button in the vertical line of three buttons located in the upper right of the screen. Below is a screenshot of the legend which will slide out after clicking this button. This legend also shows the type of reports which can be submitted. (Click the image for a higher resolution view.)mPING Icon Legend
  •  The bottom button in the vertical line of three buttons can be used to turn on and off the history of weather. Turning it on means that over the three-hour display all weather events will remain showing in the display. Turning it off means that as the weather plays out over the three-hour time period shown, you will only see weather reports at the time they were reported.
  • The layer button at the very top of the upper right of the screen allows the user to change to a topographic background instead of the black default background shown here.

Attending the Emergency Management Institute

Last year a neighboring community applied for a grant to attend a week-long class – E930: Community Specific Integrated Emergency Management Course – at the Emergency Management Institute (EMI) in Emmitsburg, Maryland. After hearing they received the grant, they invited other agencies to attend with them. Fortunately I was one of the people invited and attended the class last July with a group of about 60 people from at least five local governments, the Salvation Army, the Red Cross, and our local 911 center staff. I was so impressed by the facility that I figured I would share my experience so that others can find out about this amazing training opportunity and take advantage of it themselves.

Emergency Mgmt Institute 2012 (6)

Fortunately for our group, the grant paid for almost all the travel and training expenses. We left on a Sunday and flew to Washington, D.C. Then we were picked up and driven by bus to the campus. EMI is located about an hour away from Washington, D.C., on the campus of the former St. Joseph College. The property was purchased by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in 1979 to serve as the National Emergency Training Center (NETC). EMI is located on this campus along with the United States Fire Administration (USFA) and the National Fire Academy (NFA).

Emergency Mgmt Institute 2012 (2)

One of the greatest resources I discovered on the campus is the NETC Learning Resource Center or the library (see photo below). It's a great national treasure of emergency response information that I don't think many people know about. While I was on campus, I had the chance to spend a couple nights reading through several books on local government planning, emergency response, and the history of specific disasters. The good news is that you don't even have to go to EMI to access all their resources. The people there explained to me that anyone can request these publications by going to their own community library and asking to check them out through an interlibrary loan. To find what they have on a specific topic, you can use their WorldCat search tool. For example, I typed in chicago fire and found they have 526 publications related to that disaster. They also told me that they can perform research for you if you need to collect all the information related to a specific disaster.

NETC Learning Resource Center at EMI

Another interesting aspect of training at the EMI is that you stay on campus in their dormitories throughout your course. Of course, it's not the Hilton, but the rooms are very nice and comfortable and clean. There are public areas throughout the residential buildings where students can meet and hang out. Students are also provided all three meals at a cafeteria on campus. But the building and food is not what you would normally think of when you hear the word cafeteria. Instead, we ate in a spacious room with wood-paneled doors and accents and large wood tables (see photo at end of this post). And the food was always very good with a wide selection of all the food groups at each meal. But if students got tired of eating with everyone each night, they could also choose to walk into the town of Emmitsburg to eat at one of the restaurants there. EMI also had a building on campus with a bar and recreational activities like pool. They also provide bicycles, and unfortunately for me, I didn't realize until my last night there they also provide fishing poles and tackle for anyone who wants to fish in the nearby creek shown in the photo below. If students want to work out, there is another building on campus with a swimming pool, exercise room, and running track.

EMI 20120709 (37)

The specific class we attended was a type of course customized for the community receiving the grant. It was a combination of in-class instruction and hands-on simulation. The first day included an introduction then a quick background on ICS and the EOC. I imagine that most people coming to these classes are already familiar with these concepts since most of us are required to take the classes introducing these concepts. The rest of the day included classes about public information and warning, management of an emergency program, fire services, and law enforcement. We ended that day with a short exercise.

The next day included classes about medical services during an emergency, management of the EOC, policy level decision making, and public works. That day also concluded with an exercise. 

On the third day we had a great talk from Dr. Jeff Lating about stress management. This was followed up by mass care information and damage assessments. Then we worked on another exercise in preparation for the final day where we would simulate handling an actual disaster.

Finally on the last day, we started with a quick talk about documentation and then began our exercise. We had been split up into groups with some of us in different sections of the EOC such as logistics and planning and operations and others in a policy group. The simulated disaster was a tornado that hit during a major event although micro-disasters were launched at us throughout the simulation such as sewage overflows, water main breaks, active shooters, accidents, and visits from high-ranking elected officials. 

After a full week of classes and learning, we finished up with a cook-out and left on Friday to return home. One of the benefits of training in this manner is that it allows everyone who normally works together in an agency to get away from the office and distractions and focus on what they need to learn. It also helps build relationships and understanding between participants which can be critical to sustaining staff performance during times of a disaster when they might be faced by sometimes overwhelming demands and stress.

The bottom line on EMI training is that it was one of the best courses I have ever taken. I was exposed to knowledge from industry experts who have experienced and managed disasters all over the country. The facility was excellent, well-run, and comfortable. And the cost was definitely affordable with the main cost to my employer being my time away. The EMI training is definitely a national resource that local agencies and emergency response personnel should take advantage of. Make sure to check out their course selections and subscribe to their feed to get any updates. And if anyone out there has already attended a class at EMI, I'd be interested in hearing your own thoughts and experiences.

Dining Room at EMI



Flood Barrier Solutions

Having experienced several flooding emergencies at the last city where I worked, I have an appreciation for the amount of work that goes into protecting assets. Also, I have seen the devastation left after the waters recede. So this video was particularly interesting to me. I am sharing it here because anyone who regularly deals with flood waters might want to consider using this technology as a solution.

The manufacturer appears to be UK Flood Barriers. There is additional information on their Website.