by Grant Cousineau
As of this writing, the Australia “megafire” has burned over 17.9 million acres, larger than the area of West Virginia. It’s claimed the lives of nearly 30 people, more than 1.25 billion animals, and destroyed more than 2,000 homes. The air in Sydney has gotten so bad that breathing it has been compared to smoking 37 cigarettes.
Wisconsin’s no stranger to dangerous fires. On October 8, 1871, the Peshtigo Fire burned 1.2 million acres of Northeast Wisconsin, killing an estimated 1,500 people in the deadliest wildfire in American history. Green Bay has also been the location of several major fires, and author David Siegel published the definitive book on the city’s firefighting history.
David Siegel has been with the Green Bay Metro Fire Department since 1997 and is currently a lieutenant at Station 5 on East Mason Street. He also serves as a paramedic and the science officer for the hazardous materials team. With degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Cincinnati, he was a research biochemist before becoming a firefighter and has taught at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.
In 2016, he published Forces of Change: Events That Led to the Development of the Green Bay Fire Department, a book chronicling the creation of the Green Bay Fire Department during the 1800s and the largest fire in Green Bay’s history. He’s been involved with UntitledTown over the past several years, and I connected with him once more to talk a little more about fires, how a community can recover, and what he’s bringing to the festival this year.
Having read your book, it’s clearly a well-researched work of love. In the preface, Dr. Adam Stueck, Director of the De Pere Historical Society, said you dove into your work with both the “energetic optimism of a young researcher” and “the grounded seriousness of a seasoned professional.” What was it that inspired you to tell this story?
I didn’t initially intend to write a book. This project started as a short article for an internal fire department legacy album. As a history buff, I took that subject, thinking it would be simple. Wrong. I quickly discovered the history of the Green Bay Fire Department is incredibly rich and fascinating. Most significantly, I found a theme to our history – major fires went disastrously wrong, thereby prompting the creation and ongoing development of the fire department. As a result, I realized this story was worthy of a full book treatment and is also the basis for the title Forces of Change.
It looks like you worked with a number of local historians on this project, including researchers at the Neville Public Museum, the Brown County Library, UWGB, and the Heritage Hill State Historical Park. Of all the research you put into it, and everything that ultimately came from it, what part would you say you’re most proud of?
Re-discovering the first (and forgotten) Green Bay firefighter to die in the line-of-duty. In 1892, Hans Hansen died of injuries sustained when a horse-drawn hose cart overturned while responding to a fire. At the time, the fire service did not consider this as a line-of-duty death. Rather, they only recognized line-of-duty deaths as those firefighters killed at the fire and directly due to the fire. Consequently, Hansen’s death had been lost to time. However, by modern definition, Hansen absolutely qualifies as a line-of-duty death.
Furthermore, I determined that because of a lack of money, the family buried Hansen in an unmarked grave at Woodlawn Cemetery in Allouez. To rectify this, in July 2018, the Green Bay Metro Fire Department held a formal ceremony including the dedication of a donated grave marker. The Hansen surname was common, and he died without children, so we could not find living descendants. Thus, the honor guard presented a folded American flag to the fire department. That flag is now displayed at our headquarters station with an explanatory plaque. I’m very proud that because of my research, Hansen has been appropriately recognized and will never be forgotten again.
That had to be humbling, knowing the kind of impact your research had. And I assume as a researcher, you’ve continued digging into Green Bay’s history since then. What else happened after the book was published? Were there any other major developments that came from your research?
In 2018, I found that four Green Bay firefighters had died of cancer from 1959 to 1973 while still members of the department. At the time, the fire service did not consider cancer a job-related illness. But, over the last several decades, high cancer rates amongst firefighters has been shown to be due to exposure to carcinogens in smoke – especially smoke from burning plastics. Thus, any firefighter who previously died of cancer is retroactively recognized as a line-of-duty death.
We submitted these four firefighters to the Fallen Firefighter Memorial in Colorado. The Memorial held a massive induction ceremony and invited the families for a flag presentation. Only one of the four families were able to attend. It was my singular honor to attend that ceremony in September 2019 to receive the flags for the other three. Subsequently in November 2019, we held a flag presentation in Green Bay, attended by all four families. Even though they had lost their loved ones as much as sixty years ago, the ceremony held incredible significance to the families. For them, this service marked the only formal recognition in Green Bay.
I can’t even imagine. That must have been quite special for all of them. And speaking of service, I also know you spent time in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina as part of the relief effort. What was that like? What was the most surprising thing you learned about recovering from such devastation? Are there any parallels you see to what’s happening in Australia?
The extent of the devastation in New Orleans profoundly impacted me – block after block of destroyed and damaged urban areas. An important insight came from another, long-term relief worker. He pointed out that the storm had devastated everyone. Nobody could help anyone else substantially because they all had lost so much. In the event of a single house fire in Green Bay, we’ve repeatedly seen neighbors, friends, family, and the community help. But when everyone – every single person – has lost everything, nobody is in a position to help others or even themselves. This happened in New Orleans and is likely happening in the devastated areas of Australia. It’s what occurs with every widespread disaster and is why outside help is imperative.
As a lifelong Green Bay resident, I might be a little biased, but the community you find in Northeast Wisconsin feels uncommonly close. Neighbors shovel each other’s driveways and help one another out in the worst of times. In your line of work, have you personally witnessed that kind of community support system?
I’ve certainly seen when neighbors help those in need. A woman calling her neighbor at 3 a.m. because her husband just passed and the neighbor coming over right away. A mother needing the neighbor to watch her two sons while she goes to the hospital in the ambulance with another, and he’s there immediately. People displaced from their homes knowing who to call and getting that help. For instance, a woman lost everything in an apartment fire but the proverbial clothes on her back. She had me call her estranged brother as she was too upset to call him herself. After a fairly brief explanation of what had happened, he unhesitatingly asked me where he could immediately come get her. The worst of times brings out the best in some people.
This year at UntitledTown, you’re doing a walking tour of downtown Green Bay where the largest fire in the city’s history took place back in 1880. What can people expect to see and learn?
The Great Fire of 1880 burned a swath of destruction across nearly a mile of Green Bay, destroying 100 buildings, mostly homes. It began on the east shore of the Fox River near Mason Street, then tore through the residential neighborhood, ultimately reaching the East River at Webster Avenue. A strong fall wind combined with failed water supply to the fire engines allowed a small fire to spread rapidly. At UntitledTown 2020, I’ll give a presentation describing the disaster, including maps and first-hand accounts of witnesses and firefighters. Afterwards, I’ll lead a guided walking tour through the fire footprint describing the events at numerous locations – trying to put our mind’s-eye back to 1880. The sites include several buildings directly threatened by the fire, but they survived and exist today.
Thank you so much for chatting with me. I’m looking forward to all your events this year, both at Lion’s Mouth and UntitledTown, and can’t wait to hear where else your research takes you in the future.
Click here to purchase David’s book online (Amazon books) or you can pick up a hard copy at a number of local locations, including Lion’s Mouth Bookstore, Seroogy’s Chocolates, Neville Public Museum, Brown County Historical Society, and Bosse’s Bookstore.
On Saturday, February 15, at 11:00 a.m., David Siegel will be at the Lion’s Mouth Bookstore to give a presentation on the formation of the first three fire companies in the Borough of Green Bay, as well as lead a 30-minute guided walking-tour through some of the downtown locations he researched for his book.
He’ll also be at UntitledTown (keep an eye out for UntitledTown’s complete schedule) to talk about the most devastating fire in Green Bay’s history, as well as lead us down the path that fire took across downtown Green Bay.
You can help the Australian firefighting companies by donating to the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, the Country Fire Service Foundation in South Australia, and the Country Fire Authority in Victoria.