The Great Chicago Fire
The history of Fire Prevention Week has its roots in the Great Chicago Fire, which began on October 8 but continued into and did most damage on October 9, 1871. In just 27 hours, this tragic conflagration killed more than 250 people, left 100,000 homeless, destroyed more than 17,400 structures and burned more than 2,000 acres. While the origin of the fire has never been determined, there has been much speculation over how it began.
The Old Cow's Tale
According to popular legend, the fire broke out after a cow - belonging to Mrs. Catherine O'Leary - kicked over a lamp, setting first the barn, then the whole city on fire. Like any good story, the "case of the cow" has some truth to it. The fire almost certainly started near the barn where Mrs. O'Leary kept her five milking cows. There was never any proof that Mrs. 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.
She didn't do it...
But if a cow wasn't to blame for the huge fire, who was? Plenty of theories were developed over the years. Some blamed the blaze on a couple of neighborhood boys who were sneaking cigarettes near the barn. Others believed that Mrs. O'Leary's neighbor started the fire. Some people have speculated that a meteorite may have fallen to earth on October 8, starting several fires that day - in Michigan and Wisconsin, as well as in Chicago.
The Peshtigo Fire was the most devastating forest fire in American history. The fire roared through Northeast Wisconsin, burning down 16 towns, killing 1200 people, and scorching 1.2 million acres before it was done. 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," survivors said. It was the small town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin that suffered the worst damage. Within an hour, the entire town had been destroyed, and some 800 residents lost their lives.
Remembering the Fires
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 40th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire, the Fire Marshals' Association of North America (now known as the International Fire Marshal's Association), the oldest membership section of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), decided that the 40th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire should be observed not with festivities, but in a way that would keep the public informed about the importance of fire prevention.