Fall is upon us – the autumnal equinox, to be specific. Also remember that Fire Prevention Day is Oct. 9, and the celebration of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 is near. As I reflect on that date, I realize there are significant similarities in several of the “then and now” issues.The Great Chicago Fire was attributed to Mrs. O’Leary’s cow while, at least in part, the rapid spread of the fire was caused by unusual weather conditions – unseasonably warm winds specific to the region.
At the same time, I am reading the “La Nina” advisory issued by our National Weather Service. The “La Nina” is the cold phase of the sea surface of the equatorial regions that affect our climate. These conditions contribute to more active than normal storm and severe weather conditions. According to the NWS, we are entering that phase now.
Meanwhile, back at the fire, a relatively unknown fact is that the “great” Chicago fire was only one of many fires that October night in 1871. Out of the top 20 deadliest fires in U.S. history, the Chicago fire, as big as it was, is ranked all the way down at No. 20. The 9/11 disaster at the World Trade Center remains No. 1 – we shall never forget. The frequently forgotten No. 3 fire deserves some discussion. It was in Peshtigo, Wis., and occurred at the same time as Chicago’s great fire.
The Chicago fire claimed 250 fatalities, destroyed 14,450 buildings and consumed 2,124 acres of the city. At the same time, in Peshtigo, 1,500 lives were lost, and more than one million acres of forests and farms were consumed. The unsettled weather conditions culminated with a wind that set the stage as the last element needed for volatile fire conditions. Those 80 mph winds ripped the roofs off houses, blew over barns, uprooted trees and tossed 1,000-pound wagons like tumbleweeds. Papers caught in the updrafts were carried as far north as Canada.
There was no defense except flight. Families that fled to cellars died from asphyxiation. Those seeking safety in wells and shallow ponds were boiled alive. The majority of survivors spent the night in rivers or in Green Bay itself – only able to keep their heads above water for a few seconds at a time due to the intense heat.
Although Chicago received all of the publicity, the losses in Peshtigo were not the only other losses on that same October night. The same night that Chicago and Peshtigo burned, so did many other separate communities – all within a 400-mile radius, and none of which were aware of the other fires because of the catastrophic failure of all forms of communication due to the multiple huge fires and severe winds.
In addition to Chicago and Peshtigo, we should note that Holland, Mich., Manistee, Mich., Port Huron, Mich., Urbana, Ill., and Windsor, Ontario, all likewise burned to the ground on that same windy October night in 1871. Interestingly, it was Windsor that gave birth to the first Fire Prevention Day observance in 1911.
The weather reports from this date really reduce the significance of the O’Leary cow story. It should certainly make everyone stop to take notice of the weather reports and burn day status. Folks who disregard the warnings and burn anytime they please are truly creating a threat, not only to themselves, but to their neighbors, the community and firefighters.
The days are now getting shorter, and the nights are getting cooler. When the time changes, in addition to changing the clock, we all need to change our smoke detector batteries.
There are 42 fire agencies in Humboldt County. Every community has a fire service that will assist anyone at any time they need help. Please help your local firefighters by helping yourselves. All firefighters have the same simple request — make sure you have a working smoke detector.
When we all work together, we have a positive impact in containing the outcomes of any local O’Leary or “La Nina” relationships.
Many of our local fire departments will be holding Fire Prevention Day open houses on Oct. 9 to commemorate the “Great Chicago Fire.” Please drop in for a visit.Be safe out there!John McFarland is chief of the Arcata Fire Department and president of the Humboldt County Fire Chiefs’ Association.