The work of fighting the fire was the first and greatest duty to be performed, but from the start it proved a very difficult, almost a hopeless, task. With fierce fires burning at once in a dozen or more separate places, the fire department of the city would have been inadequate to cope with the demon of flame even under the best of circumstances. As it was, they found themselves handicapped at the start by a nearly total lack of water. The earthquake had disarranged and broken the water mains and there was scarcely a drop of water to be had, so that the engines proved next to useless. Water might be drawn from the bay, but the centre of the conflagration was a mile or more away, and this great body of water was rendered useless in the stringent exigency.
The only hope that remained to the authorities was to endeavor to check the progress of the flames by the use of dynamite, blowing up buildings in the line of progress of the conflagration. This was put in practice without loss of time, and soon the thunder-like roar of the explosions began, blasts being heard every few minutes, each signifying that some building had been blown to atoms. But over the gaps thus made the flames leaped, and though the brave fellows worked with a desperation and energy of the most heroic type, it seemed as if all their labors were to be without avail, the terrible fire marching on as steadily as if a colony of ants had sought to stay its devastating progress.
It was with grief and horror that the mass of the people gazed on this steady march of the army of ruin. They were seemingly half dazed by the magnitude of the disaster, strangely passive in the face of the ruin that surrounded them, as if stunned by despair and not yet awakened to a realization of the horrors of the situation. Among these was the possibility of famine. No city at any time carries more than a few days’ supply of provisions, and with the wholesale districts and warehouse regions invaded by the flames the shortage of food made itself apparent from the start. Water was even more difficult to obtain, the supply being nearly all cut off. Those who possessed supplies of food and liquids of any kind in many cases took advantage of the opportunity to advance their prices. Thus an Associated Press man was obliged to pay twenty-five cents for a small glass of mineral water, the only kind of drink that at first was to be had, while food went up at the same rate, bakers frequently charging as much as a dollar for a loaf. As for the expressmen and cabmen, their charges were often practically prohibitory, as much as fifty dollars being asked for the conveyance of a passenger to the ferry. Policemen were early stationed at some of the retail shops, regulating the sale and the price of food, and permitting only a small portion to be sold to each purchaser, so as to prevent a few persons from exhausting the supply.