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Fire Prevention Week

Commemorating a conflagration

Fire Prevention Week was established to commemorate the Great Chicago Fire, the tragic 1871 conflagration that killed more than 250 people, left 100,000 homeless, destroyed more than 17,400 structures and burned more than 2,000 acres. The fire began on October 8, but continued into and did most of its damage on October 9, 1871.

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. Chances are you've heard some version of this story yourself; people have been blaming the Great Chicago Fire on the cow and Mrs. O'Leary, for more than 130 years. But recent research by Chicago historian Robert Cromie has helped to debunk this version of events.

The 'Moo' myth

Like any good story, the 'case of the cow' has some truth to it. The great fire almost certainly started near the barn where Mrs. O'Leary kept her five milking cows. But there is no proof that 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.

But if a cow wasn't to blame for the huge fire, what was? Over the years, journalists and historians have offered plenty of theories. Some blamed the blaze on a couple of neighborhood boys who were near the barn sneaking cigarettes. Others believed that a neighbor of the O'Leary's may have started the fire. Some people have speculated that a fiery meteorite may have fallen to earth on October 8, starting several fires that day - in Michigan and Wisconsin, as well as in Chicago.

The biggest blaze that week

While the Great Chicago Fire was the best-known blaze to start during this fiery two-day stretch, it wasn't the biggest. That distinction goes to the Peshtigo Fire, the most devastating forest fire in American history. The fire, which also occurred on October 8th, 1871, and roared through Northeast Wisconsin, burning down 16 towns, killing 1,152 people, and scorching 1.2 million acres before it ended.

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.

Eight decades of fire prevention

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 (today known as the International Fire Marshals Association), decided that the anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire should henceforth be observed not with festivities, but in a way that would keep the public informed about the importance of fire prevention.  The commemoration grew incrementally official over the years.

In 1920, President Woodrow Wilson issued the first National Fire Prevention Day proclamation, and since 1922, Fire Prevention Week has been observed on the Sunday through Saturday period in which October 9 falls. 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 a proclamation proclaiming a national observance during that week every year since 1925.

Fire Prevention Week themes over the years

  • 1957 Don't Give Fire a Place to Start
  • 1958 Don't Give Fire a Place to Start
  • 1959 Fire Prevention is Your Job…Too
  • 1960 Don't Give Fire a Place to Start
  • 1961 Don't Give Fire a Place to Start
  • 1962 Fire Prevention is Your Job…Too
  • 1963 Don't Give Fire a Place to Start
  • 1964 Fire Prevention is Your Job…Too
  • 1965 Don't Give Fire a Place to Start
  • 1966 Fight Fire
  • 1967 Fire Hurts
  • 1968 Fire Hurts
  • 1969 Fire Hurts
  • 1970 Fire Hurts
  • 1971 Fire Hurts
  • 1972 Fire Hurts
  • 1973 Help Stop Fire
  • 1974 Things That Burn
  • 1975 Learn Not to Burn
  • 1976 Learn Not to Burn
  • 1977 Where There's Smoke, There Should Be a Smoke Alarm
  • 1978 You Are Not Alone!
  • 1979 Partners in Fire Prevention
  • 1980 Partners in Fire Prevention
  • 1981 EDITH (Exit Drills In The Home)
  • 1982 Learn Not To Burn - Wherever You Are
  • 1983 Learn Not To Burn All Through the Year
  • 1984 Join the Fire Prevention Team
  • 1985 Fire Drills Save Lives at Home at School at Work
  • 1986 Learn Not to Burn: It Really Works!
  • 1987 Play It Safe…Plan Your Escape
  • 1988 A Sound You Can Live With: Test Your Smoke Detector
  • 1989 Big Fires Start Small: Keep Matches and Lighters in the Right Hands
  • 1990 Keep Your Place Firesafe: Hunt for Home Hazards
  • 1991 Fire Won't Wait...Plan Your Escape.
  • 1992 Test Your Detector - It's Sound Advice!
  • 1993 Get Out, Stay Out: Your Fire Safe Response
  • 1994 Test Your Detector For Life
  • 1995 Watch What You Heat: Prevent Home Fires!
  • 1996 Let's Hear It For Fire Safety: Test Your Detectors!
  • 1997 Know When to Go: React Fast to Fire
  • 1998 Fire Drills: The Great Escape!
  • 1999 Fire Drills: The Great Escape!
  • 2000 Fire Drills: The Great Escape!
  • 2001 Cover the Bases & Strike Out Fire
  • 2002 Team Up for Fire Safety
  • 2003 When Fire Strikes: Get Out! Stay Out!
  • 2004 It's Fire Prevention Week! Test Your Smoke Alarms
  • 2005 Use Candles With Care
  • 2006 Prevent Cooking Fires: Watch What You Heat
  • 2007 It's Fire Prevention Week! Practice Your Escape Plan
  • 2008 It's Fire Prevention Week! Prevent Home Fires
  • 2009 Stay Fire Smart! Don't Get Burned
  • 2010 Smoke Alarms: A Sound You Can Live With

Need More Information?

If you'd like more information about fire safety and Fire Prevention Week (FPW), click on any of the links below.  

You can also learn more about that other fire prevention mascot, Smokey Bear, who's been part of the longest-running public service campaign in U.S. history (he's been around since 1944; Sparky was born in 1951).  

The Durham Fire Department is a great resource for the community.  They do more than just fight fires.  You can also check out Parkwood Volunteer Fire Department here in Durham.

For a broader perspective, take a look at the U.S. Fire Administration site. 

To learn more about fire safety in the home, visit the National S.A.F.E. Home Foundation.