1794: Fire

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Billy Joel briefly detained
Title text: Billy Joel briefly detained


In the United States and Canada, the term multiple-alarm fire is used to categorize the level of response to fires by local authorities, for instance how many units responded to the alarm. The range typically only goes through a small number of levels: typically a one-alarm fire, two-alarm fire, and three-alarm fire, perhaps up to five or six alarms in some cities, though a ten-alarm fire did occur two months before the comic near where Randall lives.

In the comic, a newspaper front page is shown with its cover story reporting a "50,000-alarm" fire, with a picture of a factory on fire. The humor lies in the unusual use of the term. Instead of indicating the severity of the fire, the number merely indicates the number of alarms being manufactured or stored in the factory at the time of the fire. As indicated by the sound waves, or agitrons, shown in the image, at least some of those alarms appear to have been set off. It is unclear what the causal relationship between the alarms and the fire is. The presence of fire might have activated those alarms (e.g. if they are smoke detectors), the sounding of alarms might have caused the fire to start (e.g. due to workers' attention being diverted from other critical operations), or they might be unrelated events that happened at the same time.

The title text mentions the musician Billy Joel being detained briefly as a suspect for the fire. But he was quickly released, likely because he didn't start the fire, which is a reference to his song "We Didn't Start the Fire". In other words, Billy Joel's claim that he is not responsible for the fire at the alarm factory has been taken seriously enough for him to be released. Also, the reference is humorous because it compares the literal fire depicted in the factory to the metaphorical fire in people's hearts, in the song. (Or just ignores the fact that the song's fire was metaphorical, for the sake of the joke.)

The incident where Billy Joel got arrested for arson was earlier shown on a similar folded newspaper with only one line of text visible next to an image. This was in comic #4 of 821: Five-Minute Comics: Part 3.

This all fits together as the cover of the single is also a newspaper page with a picture of Billy Joel beneath a headline which is the title of the song. The column of text to the right of the picture is readable here. It is not easy to read it through as some of the text continues outside the image. (The text is a section of the lyrics for the song starting from "Richard Nixon" after the fourth chorus continuing in to the next chorus).

The lyrics of the song is also mentioned in 1775: Things You Learn.

That Billy Joel was released is also obvious since he has also sung the song An Innocent Man, where he sings I am an innocent man, Oh yes I am.


[The comic shows the top part of the front page of a folded newspaper. The main headline is the only readable with a photo covering half of the pages below. In the photo a factory is on fire, with sound waves emanating to all sides. There are several sections with unreadable text.]
50,000-Alarm Fire
at Alarm Factory
  • Click to expand for a more detailed image description without any more text:

[The comic shows the top part of the front page of a folded newspaper. There are several sections with unreadable text above the main headline, where the papers name, date of issue and other daily info would be. Centered below the large two line heading of the cover story there is a photo covering half of the pages width. In the photo a white factory, with one large and one smaller building, is on fire, with sound waves emanating to all sides. Large flames are coming out the top of both buildings and above them heavy black smoke make the sky black. Where there is no smoke the sky is white. A small black building to the right has not yet caught fire. On either side of the picture there are a column and below the picture there are two more columns. All four continues to the bottom of the visible part of the paper and consist of more unreadable text. These columns constitute the main body of text of the cover story. The only readable text on the paper is the headline which is:]

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This is probably the first time I have ZERO idea what the comic is supposed to mean... -- 17:02, 3 February 2017 (UTC)

Seems to be a reference to the way fire departments measure fire intensity: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multiple-alarm_fire 17:12, 3 February 2017 (UTC)

The joke being that because its an alarm factory its 50,000 alarms, the amount of physical alarms on site, as opposed to the alarm rating given by the fire commander 17:14, 3 February 2017 (UTC) MrMX

The exaggeration of the alarm rate can be a reference on how current media in US are driven to report on harmless events in a much more drastic way. It's maybe a reference to the "alternative facts" that we get told where the press spokesman exaggerates the number of people attending a presidential inauguration or the other spokeswoman to talk about a massacre that never happened. 17:35, 5 February 2017 (UTC)

Not sure the alarms have to be functioning or "set off" to be relevant, they could just be alarms, in whatever state, that are on fire. 17:24, 3 February 2017 (UTC)Fred -- Could even be burglar alarms, or medical alarms... Though 50.000 fire alarms that actually somehow simultaneously catch fire is funny. 19:25, 3 February 2017 (UTC)

"We didn't start the fire" :-) Keybounce (talk) 18:44, 3 February 2017 (UTC)

Billy Joel also sings "An Innocent Man" in which he reiterates through the chorus "I am an innocent man". "We Didn't Start the Fire" is clearly the most relevant, but this is a nice extra little tid-bit. 20:42, 3 February 2017 (UTC)

I hadn't noticed the "sound-waves" in the newspaper photo. That's very amusing. Jkshapiro (talk) 01:35, 5 February 2017 (UTC)

The people on Candid really seem to like this one. :) --JayRulesXKCD what's up? 17:27, 6 February 2017 (UTC)

I added a mention of http://patch.com/massachusetts/cambridge/cambridge-fire-blazing-reached-six-alarms (which, notwithstanding the URL, was ultimately a ten-alarm blaze). 19:56, 6 February 2017 (UTC)

Disagree with the latest edit, regarding the "sound-waves" in the newspaper photograph: "aside from the fact that this is a cartoon and that's how cartoons work". Even in the cartoon world, photographs don't typically include an audio component. Jkshapiro (talk) 23:42, 11 February 2017 (UTC)

It's reminiscent of a Steve Wright joke about the candle factory that burned down. Everyone stood and sang "happy birthday" (referring to the tradition of candles on the cake, one for each year of the victim's age). Or the more obscure joke a 1 "L" lama, that's a priest a 2 "L" llama, that's a beast a 3 "L" lama, that's a really big fire! (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Reminds me this: https://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2016/dec/20/huge-explosion-fireworks-market-mexico-video 14:58, 8 April 2017 (UTC)