President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed the first National Fire Prevention Week on October 4-10, 1925. Since then it has been observed on the Sunday through Saturday period in which October 9 falls, in commemoration of the Great Chicago Fire and the lesser known, but even more deadly, Peshtigo fire in Northeastern Wisconsin. Since then the entire month of October has been recognized as a time to learn about the ways we can prevent fires and how to stay safe if you ever encounter one.
How it All Started:
There are varying accounts on how the Chicago fire started out. Some say it was a falling meteor that sparked the blaze while others think it was a pair of teenage boys smoking in a barn. The most common theory though is to blame a cow. Shortly after the fire, a story was published saying a cow became jumpy while it was being milked and it knocked over a lantern. Public opinion may be different on how it started but the result was still the same. The Great Chicago fire killed more than 250 people, left 100,000 homeless, destroyed more than 17,400 structures and burned more than 2,000 acres.
The Most Devastating Forest Fire in American History
On the same day as the Chicago fire, a completely different fire started in the neighboring state of Wisconsin. The Peshtigo Fire roared through Northeast Wisconsin, burning down 16 towns, killing 1,152 people, and scorching 1.2 million acres before it ended. Most people haven’t heard of this fire though because of the attention drawn by the Great Chicago Fire, which was in a much bigger city.
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 Beginnings of Fire Prevention
These two historic fires changed the way that firefighters and public officials thought about fire safety, sparking the beginning of fire prevention week. On the 40th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire, the Fire Marshals Association of North America (today known as the International Fire Marshals Association), decided that the 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.
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