Fire Prevention Week was established to commemorate the Great Chicago Fire, the tragic 1871 conflagration that killed more than 250 people, left 100,000 homeless, destroyed more than 17,400structures and burned more than 2,000 acres. The fire began on October 8, but continued into and did mostof its damage on October 9, 1871.
According to popular legend, the fire broke out after a cow – belonging to Mrs. Catherine O’Leary – kickedover a lamp, setting first the barn, then the whole city on fire. Chances are you’ve heard some version ofthis story yourself; people have been blaming the Great Chicago Fire on the cow and Mrs. O’Leary, for morethan 130 years. But recent research by Chicago historian Robert Cromie has helped to debunk this version of events.
The Biggest Blaze That Week
While the Great Chicago Fire was the best-known blaze to start during this fiery two-day stretch, it wasn’t the biggest. That distinction goes to the Peshtigo Fire, the most devastating forest fire in American history. Thefire, which also occurred on October 8th, 1871, and roared through Northeast Wisconsin, burning down 16towns, killing 1,152 people, and scorching 1.2 million acres before it ended.
Historical accounts of the fire say that the blaze began when several railroad workers clearing land fortracks unintentionally started a brush fire. Before long, the fast-moving flames were whipping through thearea ‘like a tornado,’ some survivors said. It was the small town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin that suffered theworst damage. Within an hour, the entire town had been destroyed.
Eight Decades of Fire Prevention
Those who survived the Chicago and Peshtigo fires never forgot what they’d been through; both blazesproduced countless tales of bravery and heroism. But the fires also changed the way that firefightersand public officials thought about fire safety. On the 40th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire, the FireMarshals Association of North America (today known as the International Fire Marshals Association),decided that the anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire should henceforth be observed not withfestivities, but in a way that would keep the public informed about the importance of fire prevention. Thecommemoration grew incrementally official over the years.
In 1920, President Woodrow Wilson issued the first National Fire Prevention Day proclamation, and since1922, Fire Prevention Week has been observed on the Sunday through Saturday period in which October9 falls. According to the National Archives and Records Administration’s Library Information Center, FirePrevention Week is the longest running public health and safety observance on record. The President ofthe United States has signed a proclamation proclaiming a national observance during that week every yearsince 1925.
Upcoming Fire Prevention Weeks:
2011 – October 9th -15th
2012 – October 7th – 13
2013 – October 6th – 12th
2014 – October 5th – 11th