Think Fire Safety Today

Today, 8 October 2016, is the 145th anniversary of the start of the largest and deadliest fire in the history of the United States.

This makes today a good day to think about fire safety. Every home should have a fire plan, and that plan should be reviewed and practiced on a regular basis. Today would be a good a good day to perform an test of household smoke detectors, and to perform an annual battery change. Perhaps its time to replace those old fire extinguishers that you (should) have in the kitchen and the garage. The old saying that “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is especially apt when it comes to fire safety.

The enormous fire that started 145 years ago and which was the worst such disaster in American history is not, as some may have guessed due to the date, the Great Chicago Fire, though it did start on 8 October 1871. The calamity of which I write is the lesser‐known, but far more terrible fire that broke out to the north of Chicago near the village of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, that same hot, dry October evening 145 years ago.

The Great Peshtigo Fire was far vaster in area and far greater in devastation than the Great Chicago Fire. In Chicago, almost 2,500 acres were burned and more than 15,000 structures were destroyed. More than 250 people are thought to have died in the Chicago blaze. The Great Peshtigo Fire consumed nearly 1,250,000 acres of timberland and towns, and villages on both sides of Green Bay. Whole towns were erased completely. At least 1,100 people died in the Peshtigo conflagration, though the nature of the firestorm was such that there is no certainty about many details. At times the blaze produced temperatures in excess of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which left no organic traces of the possible victims. Some sources estimate more than 2,000 people died in the Wisconsin disaster.

The Great Peshtigo Fire is not well remembered, despite its being much worse than the Great Chicago Fire. For the Peshtigo Fire there was no romantic “cause” to compare with “Mrs. O’Leary’s cow.” (To this day, the cause of the Peshtigo fire remains undetermined.) And, quite frankly, there was no media presence in the lumbering communities of Wisconsin that could compare with Chicago’s press corps. It pays to get the word out. It’s likely that most every American school child has heard about Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, though it’s a fiction. Few have read about Peshtigo.

One more fact to note helps to illustrate how much more terrifying and devastating the Peshtigo inferno was: The Great Chicago Fire burned 2,500 acres during the course of 36 hours, from 9:00 pm on Sunday the 8th until about 9:00 am on Tuesday the 10th; the Great Peshtigo Fire consumed its 1,250,000 acres in just under 11 hours!

As to the unknown causes of both Chicago’s and Wisconsin’s fires, it is interesting to note that as early as 1882, a fall of meteorites was suggested. Given that four major fires actually happened virtually simultaneously around the shores of Lake Michigan, it seems plausible that some superior cause may have been responsible. But we will likely never know for certain.

So think fire safety, today and every day, both indoors and out. And you also might do well to reflect upon the power of publicity.

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Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

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