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The Great Chicago Fire

In Canada and America, Fire Prevention Week is observed each year during October to coincide with the Great Chicago Fire.

The Great Chicago Fire burned from October 8th to October 10th, 1871. In the 22 days leading up to the fire, it had rained only once — 0.11 inches. Legend has it that a cow kicked over a lantern in a barn and started the fire, but other theories hold that humans or even a meteor might have been responsible. Whatever the reason, that night a fire broke out in a barn owned by Patrick and Catherine O’Leary, on the southwest side of Chicago, Illinois.

From the barn the fire spread north and east, into the heart of Chicago’s business district.

On the first night, strong southwesterly winds fanned the flames high into the sky and created convection spirals, or “fire devils.” Fire devils spit burning debris in all directions, causing more buildings to burn.

Back then in Chicago, buildings often had a single layer of fireproof material on the outside, but the structure was still wooden. The Waterworks, on Pine Street, was built like this; its wooden roofing shingles had been replaced with slate, but the structure was pine. When a burning ember struck the roof in the first hours of the fire, it quickly destroyed the building—the Waterworks were the main source of water for the city’s understaffed fire department.

Rain eventually came and put out the fire, but more than a day later. By then, the fire had burned an area 4 miles long and 1 mile wide, destroying 17,500 buildings and 73 miles of street. Over ninety thousand people were left homeless by the fire. While only 120 bodies were recovered, it is believed that 300 people died in the blaze.

An outbreak of looting and lawlessness followed. Soldiers were summoned to Chicago and martial law was declared on October 11th, ending three days of chaos.

 

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