October is Fire Safety Month, and the week of Oct. 7 – 15 was Fire Prevention Week. Here is a brief history lesson on how Fire Prevention Week came about.
Fire Prevention Week was established to commemorate the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 that killed more than 250 people, left 100,000 people homeless, destroyed more than 17,400 structures and burned more than 2,000 acres.
According to legend, the fire broke out after a cow belonging to Catherine O’Leary kicked over a lantern, first setting the barn on fire then the whole city. During the past 140 years, many versions of this story have blamed Mrs. O’Leary for the Great Chicago Fire. But recent research by noted Chicago Historian Robert Cromie has helped to debunk this version of events.
Like any good story, there is a little truth mixed in with a lot of fiction. The great fire almost certainly started somewhere in or near Mrs. O’Leary’s barn. But there is no proof that Mrs. O’Leary or a spooked milk cow sparked the blaze.
Over the years, there have been plenty of theories. Some blamed the blaze on a couple of boys who were seen smoking near the barn. Others believed a disgruntled neighbor may have started the fire, and others believe a vagrant possibly sleeping in the barn sparked the blaze. Another theory was during a meteor shower the night of Oct. 8 in 1871, a meteorite may have broken apart as it entered the earth’s atmosphere, starting several fires that day not only in Chicago but also in Michigan and Wisconsin.
While the Great Chicago Fire was the best-known blaze to start on Oct. 8, 1871, it wasn’t the biggest. The Peshtigo, Wis., fire, the most devastating forest fire in American history, started, and roared through northeast Wisconsin, burning down 16 towns, killing 1,152 people, and scorching 1.2 million acres of land.
Historical accounts say the blaze was started by railroad workers clearing land. Nevertheless, the fast-moving fire whipped through the area “like a tornado.” The small town of Peshtigo suffered the worst damage. Within an hour, the entire town had been destroyed.
In 1911, the 40th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire, it was decided that the event should be remember in a way that would educate the public about fire safety and prevention, but nothing was actually done until 1920 when President Woodrow Wilson issued the first National Fire Prevention Day proclamation, and since 1922, Fire Prevention Week has been observed each year on the Sunday through Saturday period in which the eighth day of October falls. Fire Prevention Week is the longest running public health and safety observance on record.