Hot flames raged and a thick, black smoke towered into the sky. The fire engulfed the Old West Studio building on April 10. If fire crews had not extinguished the blaze, it easily could have taken over the city.
“They say lightning never strikes twice in the same place, but it does,” said Tim Barrett, an amateur historian and chairman of the Tombstone Historic District Commission.
Fires like the Old West Studio blaze are not common, but Tombstone fires are still a reality.
Surviving several fires in the 1800s and two within the last few years, Tombstone residents know that the town has the potential to be a tinderbox.
Take the fire of June 1881, when a careless bartender, smoking a cigar, checked a barrel of rotten whiskey and ignited a fire that destroyed over 60 downtown businesses. Nearly a year later, in May 1882, another fire destroyed a large portion of the business district. Each time, the city’s residents picked up the pieces and rebuilt.
In 1882, the O.K. Corral was among the buildings that burned down, leaving only the sign outside the building unscathed.
“Fire used to be a real concern in the Old West and in the current Old West, it still is,” Barrett, explained. “In Tombstone, we all are more cognizant than others about fire.”
The reason, he said, is that Tombstone’s buildings are made of wood.
“Fortunately, though, we also have some of the adobe buildings here. Adobe buildings, especially way back then, didn’t really burn,” Barrett said.
In the 1800s, fire insurance was a necessity to business owners. The only difference then was that fire was an essential part of living: kerosene lamps, cooking over open fires and people smoking.
“There also was a lot of alcohol use, so a lot of people would get drunk and knock of over lamps or be careless of where they threw their stogie and then a fire breaks out,” Barrett said.
Barrett said many towns had ordinances requiring each business to have a bucket of sand and a bucket of water by their door.
These days, to keep Tombstone buildings looking like they did back in the 1880s, “a rustic scenery is often chosen over modern-day fire preventative materials,” he said.
“If a fire breaks out in one business, it could take a whole row of buildings. In a small town of only 1,350 people, that’s too many that would be out of work.” Barrett said.
Like many small towns in Arizona, Tombstone Fire Department today is manned by volunteers.
“We don’t have one of these fire departments that are going to come whirling out from the station where everybody (is) manned and ready,” Barrett said.
“In a perfect world (Tombstone) would be fire proof while looking historically correct, and authentic,” he added.
Tombstone resident Josh Hawley said Old West Studio will not be rebuilt. The owner didn’t have fire insurance to cover the damages. The lot will likely be turned into a parking lot, he said.