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Where we live: 150th anniversary of fire devastation

By Ron Gower

This past week was Fire Prevention Week, when we not only think about smoke detectors and other fire prevention measures but also are reminded how fortunate we are to have dedicated volunteers and first-class apparatus to come to our aid if tragedy occurs.

Ironically, this week was also the 150th anniversary of several of the most disastrous conflagrations in our country’s history. More on this later.

Every local community has its share of fires that are historical.

In Summit Hill there was the Philip Ginter School fire in April 1971, Lansford had a fire in its business district that destroyed most of a block in 1967, Lehighton had numerous downtown fires in the past that destroyed businesses, and no matter what town you mention, there is a history of fire devastation.

One of the worst in my lifetime locally was the wax factory fire in East Penn Township in 1994. Volunteers from about two dozen fire companies battled that blaze, including a crew from the Lehigh Valley Airport which brought a foam truck to help extinguish it.

A huge fire occurred on April 27, 1922 - nearly 100 years ago. It originated in a cigar store on Broadway in Jim Thorpe that destroyed four large buildings in what many said was the most disastrous fire the borough experienced.

But nothing compares to what happened on Oct. 8, 1871, when multiple extremely destructive fires happened.

One occurred in Chicago. It began in a barn owned by a Mrs. O’Leary. While lore has it that a cow in the barn kicked over a lantern, there never was an official cause.

The Chicago fire killed about 300 people. It destroyed thousands of buildings. Over 100,000 people were left homeless by the inferno.

Because the national media at the time was headquartered in larger cities like Chicago, and the transmission of stories was slower than it is today, this is the blaze that day which got the headlines of newspapers throughout the country.

That same day, a forest fire broke out in Peshtigo, Wisconsin. It spread through towns in the upper part of the state and into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

It isn’t known exactly how many people died in that fire, but it is believed the death toll was as high as 2,500. An area the size of Connecticut burned.

Meanwhile, that same date, major fires occurred and burned large areas in Holland, Michigan, and in Port Huron, Michigan.

There were very dry conditions at the time. Fortunately, a weather system brought rain to the region on Oct. 10, which helped firefighters quell all these fires.

Although the Mrs. O’Leary cow theory is the most publicized as the cause of the Chicago fire, historians have since given doubt and even deemed that there is no basis to it.

Some people are convinced that the outbreak of fires that fateful day is not coincidental. There’s a theory that meteoric fragments from Biela’s Comet was responsible for all the fires.

As evidenced by the spate of fires that occurred Oct. 8, 1871, in the upper Midwest, not every fire can be prevented. Lightning or unexplained situations might cause them.

Fire Prevention Week stresses, though, that many can.

One of the main lessons of Fire Prevention Week is survival when disaster strikes. Have working smoke alarms in your home. If you have alarms, check the batteries. Plan an escape route. Check your electrical wiring.

Don’t make fire safety a one-week issue.