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History of Fire Prevention Week
The history of Fire Prevention Week has its roots in the Great Chicago Fire, which began on October 8, 1871, lasted 27 hours and incurred most of the damage the following day. As a result, October 9, 1871, is the date most often connected with the tragic conflagration. In the end, the Great Chicago Fire killed more than 250 people, left 100,000 homeless, destroyed more than 17,400 structures and burned more than 2000 acres. While the origin of the fire has never been determined, there has been much speculation over how it began. One popular legend was that Mrs. O'Leary was milking her cow when the animal kicked over a lamp, setting the O'Leary's barn on fire and starting the spectacular blaze. However, this was proven untrue a few years ago by Chicago historian Robert Cromie. Like any good story, the 'case of the cow' has some truth to it. The great fire almost certainly started near the barn where Mrs. O'Leary kept her five milking cows. But there is no proof that O'Leary was in the barn when the fire broke out - or that a jumpy cow sparked the blaze. Mrs. O'Leary herself swore that she'd been in bed early that night, and that the cows were also tucked in for the evening.
But if a cow wasn't to blame for the huge fire, what was? Over the years, journalists and historians have offered plenty of theories. Some blamed the blaze on a couple of neighborhood boys who were near the barn sneaking cigarettes. Others believed that a neighbor of the O'Leary's may have started the fire. Some people have speculated that a fiery meteorite may have fallen to earth on October 8, starting several fires that day - in Michigan and Wisconsin, as well as in Chicago. Whether the cow story is true or not, it is still a fun myth with the kids!
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, in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, which occurred on the exact same day as the Chicago fire, October 8, 1871. Peshtigo is a small town approximately 260 miles to the North of Chicago. This was the biggest, most devastating forest fire in American history. This fire burned a total of 16 towns (completely destroying Peshtigo) and 1.2 million acres of land. 1,200 people died in this fire with 800 of them from the town of Peshtigo (a mass grave in Peshtigo holds the remains of 300 of the victims). Throughout the region, 3,000 to 4,000 people were left homeless and property damage was estimated at $169 million. Afterwards, people said the fire storm was a whirling, roaring column of flame that suddenly converged; balls of fire and smoke that sailed through the air and burst into flame on contact.
Historical accounts of the fire say that the blaze began when several railroad workers clearing land for tracks unintentionally started a brush fire. Before long, the fast-moving flames were whipping through the area 'like a tornado,' some survivors said. It was the small town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin that suffered the worst damage. Within an hour, the entire town had been destroyed.
"THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE"
Those who survived the Chicago and Peshtigo fires never forgot what they'd been through; both blazes produced countless tales of bravery and heroism. But the fires also changed the way that firefighters and public officials thought about fire safety. On the Great Chicago Fire's 40th anniversary, the former Fire Marshals Association of North America (now the International Fire Marshals Association, or IFMA) decided that the anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire should henceforth be observed not with festivities, but in a way that would keep the public informed about the importance of fire prevention. The commemoration grew incrementally official over the years.
In 1920, President Woodrow Wilson issued the first National Fire Prevention Day proclamation, and since 1922, Fire Prevention Week has been observed on the Sunday through Saturday period in which October 9 falls. According to the National Archives and Records Administration's Library Information Center, Fire Prevention Week is the longest running public health and safety observance on record. The President of the United States has signed a proclamation proclaiming a national observance during that week every year since 1925.
Dedicated to raising public awareness about the dangers of fire and how to prevent it, NFPA has officially sponsored Fire Prevention Week since the observance was first established.
See what Fire Prevention was like in 1959...