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What We Learned from the Great Chicago Fire

This week is Fire Prevention Week. But did you know it was first established in 1925? And did you know it was inspired by the Great Chicago Fire of 1871? Beginning on October 8, the notorious fire leveled four square miles of the city and left roughly one third of the population homeless. Many people feel that some good did come out of the tragedy though. New laws were created with fire safety prevention in mind. Architects began using new fire protection systems in their designs and building methods to make sure a similar tragedy would never happen again.

Legend has it that the fire began with in a barn on the southwest side of the city when a cow kicked over a lantern. The fire spread quickly due to dry conditions that summer and the multitude of wooden structures and sidewalks that were common in the city at the time. High winds caused the fire to jump the Chicago River in just a few hours and the fire raged until a rainstorm finally extinguished the inferno on October 10. The devastation numbers are still mind boggling today: almost 300 fatalities; 18,000 buildings destroyed; 100,000 people left homeless; and $200,000,000 in property damage.

The plans to rebuild the city began while the flames were still burning though, and in some cases, construction on replacement structures actually began before the architect had even finished the design. In 1872, the Chicago City Council restricted the construction of new wooden buildings through sections of the city. They also placed mandates on the use of fireproof materials such as brick, stone, marble and limestone in construction. This also led to the process of lining iron columns with terra cotta as a method of fire protection which opened the door for the age of the skyscraper that began in Chicago with the Home Insurance Building in 1884.

The city’s fire and building codes were strengthened considerably after the fire, specifically placing more stringent regulations and thorough safety inspections of fire protection systems.

But it is not just the Great Chicago Fire that was the catalyst for change in the city’s safety codes. Subsequent fires in 1874 led to the ban of all wooden construction in Chicago which actually spurred the growth of the town’s suburbs. Many people moved outside the city for the opportunity of cheaper home construction because they couldn’t afford the cost of building fireproof-compliant homes.

The Iroquis Theater Fire of 1903, which killed more than 600 people, led to the requirement of unlocked fire exit doors that opened outward, sprinkler systems, and steel curtains that could be used as fire walls.

The LaSalle Hotel Fire of 1946 also led to new safety codes for high-rise buildings by requiring the use of enclosed stairwells and elevator shafts.

Chicago has been a leader in the evolution of fire safety ever since the Great Fire nearly crippled the city. Every innovation formed after different tragedies helped to form the metropolis it is today and provided a blueprint for cities around the world.

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