Every year we come upon the week of October 9th, and amongst pictures of pumpkins and foliage, we find daily campaigns of fire safety and prevention. You may be familiar with the week itself, and even recognize its faithful mascot, Sparky the Fire Dog, but it wasn’t always just about education and public awareness. The reason for designating this week actually goes back to the tragedy of a particular day.
On the evening of October 8th, 1871 a fire started around a small barn in the city of Chicago. With wood and highly flammable roofing materials being the predominant building supplies of the city, strong southwest winds, and a few errors in the emergency response, the small barn fire turned devastating for the city. Adding to the perfect recipe for disaster, the fire was preceded by drought conditions that had been plaguing the region since July.
What started the fire is still left up for debate, but when all was said and done, the fire took out more than 2,000 acres. More than 17,400 structures were affected, roughly 300 people killed, and 100,000 residents were left homeless. Much of the city’s central business district had been completely destroyed. In the 40 years after the terrible event, people continued to think about what could have been done differently, and it was decided that each anniversary to follow would be observed in a way to promote fire safety awareness, and to teach the importance of fire prevention. This definition quickly blossomed into what is now our annually observed Fire Prevention Week.
Although Fire Prevention Week was established to commemorate the Great Chicago Fire, there was a series of fires that very same day, and the country suffered the worst forest fire in American history. The Peshtigo Fire was a fire storm that was said to have been started by smaller fires intentionally set to clear land for the growing railroad. Although the specifics couldn’t be accurately determined, the blaze took down around 16 towns, and killed over 1,100 people. When the blaze reached the small town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, it was completely destroyed within just an hour. It even skipped over the Menominee River destroyed several Upper Michigan towns. Separate from the Peshtigo Fire, Michigan originated its own fire, known as the Great Michigan Fire. The logging business was booming in the state at that time, and the raw wooden materials and bark remnants simply fueled the firestorm’s appetite.
From the collective ashes of these fires, survivors rose to mourn lost loved ones, and share their tales of bravery and heroism. People started to think differently about fire safety and awareness. Rather than the anniversary being a solemn day, the 40th anniversary decision to make it a campaign for public safety has been amazingly uplifting and beneficial to the cause. In today’s world, we trust in building codes, flame retardant materials, and regularly practice evacuation routes. We are more aware of how to properly store things, and what to check often to prevent hazards. Fire Prevention Week reminds us yearly about the importance of fire safety awareness, and of course reminds us to test those smoke detectors, but it all originated from that fateful day of October 9th, 1871.