Everyone knows the story of the Great Chicago Fire, which burned from October 8 – 9, 1871. Legend has it that the fire was set by a cow in Mrs. O’Leary’s barn (though recent historical studies have all but disproven this). These days, the NPFA designates the week of Oct. 9 as Fire Prevention Week to remind people that it takes constant vigilance to prevent another devastating tragedy.
Since 1927, every Fire Prevention Week has had a theme. This year is no different, with the theme of “Protect Your Family From Fire” and the NFPA’s website has tons of fire safety tips for families and everyone else interested in staying safe from fires.
Fire Protection Week focuses primarily on preventing residential fires. This year, the focus is especially on helping people who may have difficulty escaping from a fire, particularly the elderly or those with physical or mental disabilities. The NFPA has a number of surprising residential fire safety statistics on their website that emphasize the importance of fire sprinklers and smoke alarms:
According to recent historical research, the story of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, while famous, has been mostly disproven. Experts such as Chicago historian Robert Cromie are pretty sure that while the fire definitely started NEAR her barn, and new theories as to how the fire was actually set range from fairly ordinary (a few young kids sneaking cigarettes) to literally out of this world (flaming meteorites setting fires in Chicago and as far as Michigan and Wisconsin).
Whoever is to blame, the fire itself was devastating – it raged for two days straight, burned up 2,000 acres, destroyed 17,400 homes, killed 250 people and left another 100,000 homeless. And the worst thing about it? The Great Chicago Fire wasn’t the worst fire in American history – in fact, it wasn’t even the worst that day!
On the same day that the Great Chicago Fire was started, Oct. 8, 1871, a group of railroad workers in Northeast Wisconsin were clearing land for new tracks when they accidentally sparked a brush fire that would quickly become the biggest known fire in American history. The Peshtigo fire, which swept “like a tornado” through Northeast Wisconsin, razed 16 towns, killed 1,152 people and turned 1.2 million acres to ash.
In addition to producing countless tales of heroism from the people who survived them, the Chicago and Peshtigo fires resulted in a paradigm shift in people’s thinking about fire safety. In 1920, President Woodrow Wilson issued the first National Fire Prevention Day proclamation and since 1922, Fire Prevention Week has commemorated the fires with an aim to prevent such devastating blazes from ever occurring again.
Fire Prevention Week has been themed since 1927 – Why this Mad Sacrifice to Fire? Other notable themes have included World War II propaganda (Today Every Fire Helps Hitler – 1944), to outlandishly accusatory (YOU caused 1,700,000 Fires Last Year! – 1947). This year’s theme is pretty standard and its goal is to help people who would have more trouble escaping from fires (the elderly or the mentally disabled). For more information about Fire Prevention Week, check out the NFPA’s website.
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