The Key West Mystique

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Lahaina fire Front Street 2023

The Lahaina fire | Lessons for a vulnerable Key West

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.


Could a Lahaina-style fire destroy Key West?

Crikey, could I ask a more naive question? The answer’s simple: With the tiniest spark of an e-bike battery — or my toaster — gone rogue, and whoosh. I don’t have to ask the fire department, the mayor, the city manager or the internet. All I have to do is look around. If I were the fire chief, I’d lie awake at night with panic attacks.

What makes our vulnerability more anxiety-laden is there’s nothing we can actually do about it. A fire like the one on Aug. 8, which roared through Lahaina on the west coast of Maui and killed more than 100 people, ranks right up there with the possibility of a dead-on Category 5 hurricane clearing the decks in Key West. It’s not if it can happen; it’s when will it happen — again.

Because, as every student of the Conch Train’s history spiel knows, the Great Key West Fire of March 30, 1886, burned much of downtown to the ground, forcing fleeing residents into the surrounding ocean and gulf waters and resulting in a city mandate that all roofs henceforth must be metal. (The thinking was metal roofs would deter sparks from jumping from house to house. A comforting, if not practicable, made-for-myths idea.)

The similarities between Key West and Lahaina are so striking that I early-on mistook a photograph of Lahaina’s historic Front Street for Key West’s Duval. Not surprising when one considers both towns are products of late 19th Century architecture, one- and two-story wood structures fronting close by the sidewalk and jammed together with nary a whisker of space between them.

Did you know our required setbacks at the fronts, sides and backs of our houses and businesses were intentionally made wider to assist firefighters had they need to fight a fire at your house? Yeah, I didn’t know that either.

Lahaina fire
Smoke and flames fill the air from raging wildfires in Lahaina, HI, on Wednesday, Aug. 9. Front Street in Lahaina looks strikingly like Duval Street in Key West. Photo courtesy of Alan Dickar via AP

Lahaina fire | Key West could face the same disaster — again

Our historic buildings are just so much kindling for fire. What were once strong boards, beams and foundations are today cobwebs of old, bone-dry wood, much of it bearing extensive termite and wood rot damage. The concrete blocks that formed buildings of the mid-1950s and 1970s might withstand the fire, but their wood frames and foundations certainly won’t.

We live, work and play in structures that are cheek-by-jowl, which is terrific for efficient land use, but a nightmare if a fire gets out of hand.

We’ve planted all manner of stuff in our yards that grows amok in our tropical ecosystem, dies and piles up on itself until our under- and midstory plants, bushes and trees are as welcoming to fires as they are to butterflies and real estate photos. Hurricanes Wilma and Irma did admirable jobs of cleaning out all that dead, fire-friendly undergrowth, but it’s been six years since Irma and, unless you’ve been diligent about cleaning it out, your yard is a fire hazard.

We have nowhere to go. That was a big challenge for Lahaina residents trying to evacuate. It’s going to be tougher for Key West. We’ve got one roadway out, an airport smaller than Lahaina’s — and we don’t have the entire rest of Maui to assist us. Heck, we can’t even evacuate safely for a hurricane with a week’s notice. How could we get off this island in a fire of Lahaina proportions? Not happening.

Fewer than one percent of the nation’s fire departments are rated Class 1, and the Key West Fire Department is one of them. That’s good news for regular stuff, though a fire of Lahaina proportions could overwhelm the best firefighters.

There is a question looming: According to the fire department’s section on the city’s website, the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority ensures “adequate water pressure (55 lbs).” When last we heard publicly from FKAA, water pushed throughout the Keys has been reduced from 26 million gallons per day to 22 million per day, which also reduced overall water pressure. I have to assume that reduction would affect how effectively the fire department could respond.

Here’s what FKAA CEO Greg Veliz told me in an email Wednesday morning: “I will tell you that having worked with them [the fire department] for a number of years, I have the utmost confidence in their ability and that their efforts will not be hampered by lack of water. Between the storage we have on hand and the water we move down the keys they will have all the water they need to fight any size fire.”

I’d also asked these other questions, which as of Wednesday morning, Veliz had not answered specifically. I’ll let you know when I hear back.

Here’s what I asked of FKAA CEO Veliz:

  • Can FKAA guarantee the 55 pounds of pressure required to maintain the fire department’s Class 1 status?
  • Under the current circumstances, knowing pressure has already been reduced because of the old pipes and knowing that increasing it could put undue pressure on the current system, how would FKAA respond to the need for additional pressure by the fire department?
  • What is the current pressure FKAA is providing to the fire department?
  • What was it before the current reduction?
  • And, assuming you could just turn it up, so to speak, how long would it take to get the system in Key West up to an appropriate pressure to fight a Lahaina-style fire?

And then there’s the hurricane factor. Winds from the outer bands of a hurricane swept the Lahaina fire out of control. Just imagine what would happen in Key West if we have the perfect storm. Old wood houses chockablock; hurricane winds; tinder-box under story; overwhelmed fire fighters; nowhere to go and no way to get there; thousands of visitors; and someone’s Tesla battery goes boom down around Duval and Front.

The “irrepressible AMERICAN of the nineteenth century

Thought some of you might enjoy a newspaper clipping I found while researching my column. This is from “The Italy of America” written in 1887, just after Key West’s Great Fire in 1886, by author C.J. Huelsenkamp. The excerpt was republished in Key West’s The Daily Equator-Democrat in March, 1889.

“On the 30th of March, 1886, Key West lost in the neighborhood of Two Million Dollars [Equal to about $63 billion today.] by fire.
The terror of that awful sight will never be forgotten by any one who witnessed the grand but terrible tragedy. Fire and wind undid in a few short hours the work of many generations of busy men. Human suffering and hardship was exemplified in the period of woe and desolation that followed. Every one was dazed and bewildered. Despair was the key note of every voice, and a scene of blackened ruins and ashy waste failed to inspire hope in any heart or reflect a flash from any eye.
Just how irrepressible is the AMERICAN of the nineteenth century! How elastic his ingenuity and enterprise.
The area of scores of acres which on the first day of April, 1886, represented a waste of ashes and smoking embers, a sea of blackened faith and ruined hopes, is now transformed into the pleasing picture of an improved and prosperous modern city of 20,000 happy people.”

1 Comment

  1. Jessica

    It would be great to have an organized week” of fire mitigation clean-up where everyone got involved – if only to help be as prepared if/when as you say that perfect storm were to hit. Thank you for bringing this point up – I thought about the one road out when the Lahaina fire was underway.

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