Curt Brown, author of “Minnesota 1918: When Flu, Fire and War Ravaged the State,” has spent most of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic with his family in his home near the Pine River in Bayfield.
When the book was published in 2018, Brown drew similarities between the Minnesota fire and the 416 Fire during book talks at the Pine River Library. Two years later, the similarities are even closer: a pandemic, the summer season’s first wildfires and social conflicts painting “warlike scenes” across the U.S., he said. For Brown, the lessons from the past aren’t all about calamity – they are about resiliency, too.
“When you spend a lot of time writing a book about this combination of a pandemic and fires from 102 years ago, then you see Durango having fires out of control in past years ... history repeats itself,” said Brown, who spent his career writing for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “We can certainly learn things from the past.”
“Minnesota 1918” chronicles a wildfire, sparked by a train, that killed 453 people. Escapees were housed together. There, they were at increased risk for contracting the influenza virus spreading around the world, in part, because of soldiers traveling to fight World War I.
Most experts say the influenza virus likely originated in Kansas, but it erroneously became known as the Spanish flu, Brown said. There were laws censoring what newspapers could say, and anything that could hurt the war morale was illegal. Spain, neutral in the war, did not have the same censoring laws and began publishing stories of thousands of deaths.
“Kind of like what the president calls the China virus ... it’s always blame someone else,” he said.
The 1918 and 2020 pandemics have some key differences. In 1918, people did not know what a virus was. They thought it was a bacterial infection. Communities did not have high-quality protective equipment or intensive care units.
The death tolls were higher. About 675,000 Americans died of the flu or secondary illnesses related to the flu, such as pneumonia, in 1918. Compared with today’s population, that would be about 2 million people, Brown said.
In La Plata County, 200 people died of the flu in 1918 with an approximate population of 11,000. That equals about 1,000 people today, considering the county’s population of about 56,200 people.
But there were also some similarities. The anti-mask leagues of the 20th century reflect the anti-mask protests in the 21st. First responders in fire-prone areas like Southwest Colorado are battling small wildfires in a dry season on top of the coronavirus. Brown found letters from 1918 in which people talked about business closures in response to the influenza. They are “eerily similar” to the digital messages about closures in 2020, he said.
“The comparison to the war is this internal George Floyd reckoning. Clearly, there are warlike scenes across America, especially back in my former state of Minnesota,” Brown said. “(It) isn’t the same as World War I, but it’s kind of a third prong of disaster.”
Officials minimized the severity of the influenza virus in 1918, partially because censorship laws restricted them from saying otherwise. Early in the current crisis, officials from the White House all the way down said the pandemic would go away with warm weather; we’d be back to normal soon, Brown said.
“It’s scary to think ... if it runs in three waves like it did 102 years ago, that’s pretty dire,” he said. “At the same time, my book is full of stories of people who got through this.”
In 1918, letters and journals described how families, couples and communities dealt with the crises of their time. Brown said he feels optimistic reading those documents because he sees how resilient people were.
“They somehow got through it and charged on. That gives me some hope that we can get through this, too,” Brown said. “One day these will all be memories. ... We just have to let history play out.”