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Why Oct. 8 is so important
Guest editorial
Lamar Cook
Lamar Cook is chief of the Hinesville Fire Department. - photo by File photo

Once a year, all over America, we observe fire prevention week during the week of Oct, 8.

Why Oct. 8?

Some people think it is because of the coming winter, and that may be true, but here is the rest of the story.

Let us go back to the year 1871 in the city of Chicago. In those days, Chicago was a fast growing city with a lot of hope for the future. Houses were built so close together that it was hard to walk between them.

Buildings were constructed of wood including the roofs, walls and even the sidewalks. Wood was the only building material that was not in short supply.

In the summer and fall of that year there was a long period of drought; the wood, grass and trees were extremely dry. When something flammable becomes dry, it is more likely to catch fire and when it burns, it burns faster and hotter. The fire Chief of Chicago repeatedly warned about the dangers, but few people listened.

Then, on the night of Oct. 8, a fire began. This was not the only fire that started in the city that week, but it quickly became the most deadly.

There are several theories about how the fire started, to include one that says a cow kicked over a lantern in a barn belonging to the O’Leary family. No one knows for sure how the fire started, but it is certain that it started around 8:30 p.m. Chicago burned all night and into the next day. Before the fires were over, 250 people had lost their lives.

Today most people remember the "Great Chicago Fire," but few remember a bigger and more deadly fire that occurred the very same day in a small Wisconsin town called Peshtigo.

The main industries in Peshtigo were logging and farming and on this day, a crew of workers building a railroad began to burn piles of brush and trees. Peshtigo was experiencing the same drought as Chicago and by 8:30 p.m. (the same time the fire began in Chicago), the fires were burning out of control and the lumber mills caught fire. Soon, because there was a high wind, the fires had spread in all directions and caused walls of flames several hundred feet high that surrounded the town.

People panicked and most tried to flee. One family was racing down the road with their possessions when they were overcome by flames. They were later found still sitting in their wagon, and the family and their horses had died from the heat.

A group of about 75 people tried to avoid the fire by going into a large brick boarding house thinking that it might be "fire proof;" all of these people died as no building is completely fireproof.

People were jumping in wells thinking they would be safe, soon others had the same idea and 26 people were piled into the same well. The people on bottom drowned and the others died from the heat and lack of air.

The Peshtigo fire killed 1,182 people and has been nearly forgotten. This is not the end of the story, as bad as the Chicago and Peshtigo fires were, and as odd as it might be that they both happened on the same day and started at almost the same time, neither of these fires were the worst to happen in America on that day.

In the state of Michigan, another fire began on Oct. 8 that same year and it is believed this fire also began in the evening around 8:30.

This fire did not involve any large cities or towns, but was a series of forest fires that destroyed small villages and farms.

The fire covered several million acres of land, destroyed over 40 towns and left nearly 19,000 people homeless. The greatest tragedy of all was that around 1,700 men, women and children were killed.

Three of America’s largest fires all happened on the exact same day and started at almost the same time.

As a result of that day in firefighting history, the week of Oct. 8 has been chosen as Fire Prevention Week. Thousands of people die as a result of fire every year in America.

Most of them do not die in large fires, with all the drama and excitement of a major news event, nor do most people who die in a fire die as part of a crowd of other panic stricken people.

The sad fact is that most fire victims die alone, at night, in their own beds which lends the lesson that has been taught most; make sure that you have working smoke alarms in your home and you have a good home escape plan.

At the Hinesville Fire Department we conduct public safety education more than just one week a year, we do it year around. We have more than 15 different public safety programs that we can do.

To view the available programs, visit and look at the Public Safety Education page under the Fire Department. To schedule an event, contact the Hinesville Fire Department at (912) 876-4143.

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