By George Cook, Extension Farm Safety Specialist, UVM
Most people know of the Great Chicago Fire of Oct. 8-10, 1871. From that conflagration came the establishment of National Fire Prevention Week with the first official proclamation in 1925 by President Calvin Coolidge. This year it will run from Oct. 4-10.
The 1871 fire killed up to 300 people, destroyed roughly 3.3 square miles of Chicago and left more than 100,000 residents homeless. Although the fire was one of the largest U.S. disasters of the 19th century, and destroyed much of the city’s central business district, Chicago was rebuilt and continued to grow to become one of the most populous and economically important American cities.
What most people do not know is that the same night the fire broke out, an even deadlier fire wiped out Peshtigo, Wisconsin, and other villages and towns north of Green Bay. It was a firestorm that caused the most deaths by fire in United States history, with estimated deaths of around 1,500 people, possibly as many as 2,500.
In those days, small fires were set to clear forest land for farming and railroad construction. On the day of the Peshtigo fire, a cold front moved in from the west, bringing strong winds that fanned the small fires out of control. This created a firestorm, a wall of flame “a mile high, five miles wide, traveling 90 to 100 miles per hour, hot enough to turn sand into glass,” according to historical accounts.
By the time it was over, 1,875 square miles (1.2 million acres) of forest had been destroyed, an area approximately twice the size of Rhode Island. Twelve communities were gone. An accurate death toll has never been determined because local records were destroyed in the fire. Estimates put it at between 1,200 and 2,500 people who were thought to have lost their lives.
The Peshtigo fire has been largely forgotten. I do not recall studying this in U.S. history classes although we all learned of the Great Chicago Fire and Mrs. O’Leary’s cow.
Interestingly, on the same day as the Peshtigo and Chicago fires, the cities of Holland and Manistee, Michigan, across Lake Michigan also burned, as did Port Huron on the southern end of Lake Huron.
So, take care with fires, be safe around them and teach youngsters to respect fire at all times. It only takes a moment for fire to grow out of control and consume your home, your farm, your community or your forests.
The National Fire Prevention Association has been the official sponsor of National Fire Prevention Week since 1922. According to the National Archives and Records Administration’s Library Information Center, Fire Prevention Week is the longest running public health and safety observance on record. The president of the United States has signed an official proclamation proclaiming a national observance during that week every year since 1925.
In the words of the late, great newsman Paul Harvey, “And now you know the rest of the story … Good Day!”