There are a couple of reasons that October is observed as National Fire Prevention Month. The first of those reasons goes back 150 years, to the Great Chicago Fire, which broke out on Oct. 8, 1871.

The fire started in the barn of Patrick and Catherine O’Leary. By the time the blaze died out two days later, about 300 people were dead, 90,000 people were homeless (about a third of the city’s population), and an area four miles long and one mile wide, including 17,500 buildings, were destroyed.

Michael Ahern, a reporter for The Chicago Republican, wrote that the fire had started when the O’Leary’s cow, Daisy, kicked over a lantern while being milked. In fact, the O’Learys were in bed when the fire started and the cause was never determined.

That didn’t stop the press and the public from finding some way to blame a poor, Catholic, immigrant, woman for the catastrophe, however. In his obituary in The Chicago Tribune in 1927, it was stated that Ahern admitted in 1921 he made the cow story up along with two other guys!

For the rest of her life, which ended in 1895, Catherine O’Leary was in the public eye and was blamed for that fire. Her cause of death was supposedly pneumonia, but her family said she died of a broken heart.

But as so often happens in this country, wrongs don’t get addressed until a good 100 years or so have passed. The Chicago City Council exonerated the late Mrs. O’Leary and Daisy of any guilt over the fire in 1997.

Today the DeKoven Street address where the fire started is the site of the Chicago Fire Academy, built in 1961.

The Chicago Fire was quickly driven by strong winds and dry conditions, and it started at about 9 o’clock on a Sunday night, definitely not cow-milking time, and not a good time to get firefighters to the right spot at the right time in 1871, either.

Burning debris floated on the wind and latched onto rooftops across the Chicago River. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, only rainfall, Lake Michigan, and stretches of unbuilt lots on the North Side of the city finally halted the wave of destruction on the morning of Oct. 10.

Since 1922, the National Fire Protection Association has sponsored the public observance of Fire Prevention Week within Fire Prevention Month, which is observed each year during the week of Oct. 9, in commemoration of the Great Chicago Fire. In 1925, President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed Fire Prevention Week a national observance, making it the longest-running public health observance in the country, according to the NFPA.

This year “Learn the Sounds of Fire Safety” was the Fire Prevention Week campaign. The focus was on knowing the sounds associated with our smoke alarms. For example:

A continuous set of three loud beeps means smoke or fire. Get out, call 9-1-1, and stay out.

A single chirp every 30 or 60 seconds means the battery is low and must be changed.

All smoke alarms must be replaced after 10 years.

Chirping that continues after the battery has been replaced means the alarm is at the end of its life and the unit must be replaced.

Make sure your smoke and carbon monoxide alarms meet the needs of all your family members, including those with sensory or physical disabilities.

Another reason October is a good time to concentrate on fire prevention is because the threat of home fires increases with cold weather.

According to the American Red Cross, the Arkansas and Missouri Red Cross region responds to 34 percent more home fires in November-March compared to warmer months. Also, cooking and heating equipment are the leading causes for those fires.

October is the time to test smoke alarms, practice home and business fire escape drills, and help children learn fire prevention safety, what smoke alarms sound like, and what to do in an emergency.

Steve Gillespie is editor of The Daily Press. Email him at

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