A catastrophe in a New England coastal city is the concern of the Mayor, an alderman, a politician, the Chief Engineer and head of the Fire Department and a younger Captain, Dorr. A hand tub boy and now with the responsibilities of the Department, Damon knows, in 1871, that there are not enough hydrants for the city's expansion; that the wooden mansard roofs ask for trouble; that the epidemic among the horses is an extra hazard. But he gets no assistance from the city fathers and when fire, starting in a factory making wooden hoops, comes -- it is a fight on every front and a trial from which no man emerges with integrity or pride. The Mayor senses, but never realizes, how his morals have been sabotaged by his weaknesses; the alderman takes power when his orders for gunpowder override Damon's refusal to use the stuff; Dorr, always striving, always a craven, leaves others to die to save himself; and Damon, able but facing an enemy with lack of equipment and support, fights the fire on every side with all the strategy he can command and meets the full dimension of the challenge, but loses prestige. A careful tracing of men's lives and actions and fire's devastations, by its conscientiousness loses the full impact of the story.