History of 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.
Fight 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
- 1927: Why this Mad Sacrifice to Fire?
- 1928: FIRE…Do Your Part – Stop This Waste!
- 1929: FIRE – The Nation’s Greatest Menace! Do Your Part to Stop This Waste!
- 1930: Fight Fire Waste with Fire Prevention. Do Your Part
- 1931: Do Your Part to Prevent Fire
- 1932: Your Life. Your Property
- 1933: Your Life. Your Property
- 1934: For this year I only found evidence of a leaflet – Now War on Fire
- 1935: For this year I only found evidence of a flyer – What Would Fire Mean to You?
- 1936: Stop It
- 1937: Help Prevent Fires
- 1938: Is This Your Tomorrow?
- 1939: Was Somebody Careless?
- 1940: Keep Fire In Its Place
- 1941: Defend Against Fire
- 1942: Today Every Fire Helps Hitler
- 1943: Fires Fight for the Axis! (to emphasize home fire prevention); Feed Fighters Not Fires (farm and rural campaign); The War’s Over for This Plant (industrial use);Was Somebody Careless? (general purpose)
- 1944: To Speed Victory – Prevent Fires (general purpose); Feed Fighters, Not Fires! (farm and rural); To Speed Victory, Defeat Fire (town plaster)
- 1945: We Burned the Enemy – Now Save Yourself from Fire
- 1946: FIRE is the Silent Partner of Inflation
- 1947: YOU caused 1,700,000 Fires last Year!
- 1948: Help Yourself to Fire Prevention!
- 1949: Flameproof Your Future!
- 1950: Don’t Let Fire Lick You
- 1951: Defend America From Fire
- 1952: Be Free From Fear of Fire
- 1953: Fire Feeds on Careless Deeds
- 1954: Let’s Grow Up – Not Burn Up
- 1955: Don’t Give Fire A Place to Start
- 1956: Don’t Give Fire a Place to Start
- 1957: Make Sure of Their Tomorrows – 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
- 2011: It's Fire Prevention Week! Protect Your Family From Fire!