The fire that almost destroyed Chicago

house-fireOctober is National Fire Prevention Month. Its origin goes back to October of 1871 and the Great Chicago Fire.

On Sunday, October 8, 1871 just after nine o’clock in the evening, a fire broke out in the barn behind the home of Patrick and Catherine O’Leary on the west side of Chicago. The O’Leary milk cow kicking over a lantern was originally blamed for the fire, but the exact cause of the fire is still unproven.

An extremely dry summer that year, along with houses and businesses constructed of wood, wood-paved streets and sidewalks left plenty of fuel for the fire to consume. After the barn caught fire it was fed by strong winds coming off of Lake Michigan. The devastation wiped out the entire central business district of Chicago, burned more than 3 square miles, including more than 18,000 buildings, claimed more than 300 lives and left 100,000 people homeless.

Nearly 142 years later, carelessness and a lack of fire safety continue to cause many thousands of residential fires each year. According to the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), during a typical year electrical problems in the home cause more than 28,000 fires and $1 billion dollars in damages.

“Safe Electricity wants everyone to be aware of electrical hazards, and know there are simple steps that can be taken to prevent electrical fires,” says Molly Hall, director of the Safe Electricity program. “For example, a routine check of electrical cords and outlets can save lives.”

Many avoidable fires can be traced to poor maintenance and misuse of electrical appliances and electric cords. Don’t place cords underneath rugs and furniture and do not run cords behind baseboards, curtains and in high-traffic areas. Damaged, abused or worn extension cords can pose a major fire hazard.

“This October, begin a habit of regularly inspecting all appliances, cords and plugs,” suggests Hall. “If you discover a frayed cord or loose prongs on a plug, discontinue use until replaced or repairs can be made.”

Some suggested home appliance safety checks and measures to prevent shocks, burns and fires include:

If an appliance has a three-prong plug, use it only in a three-slot outlet. Never remove the grounding pin or force it to fit into a two-slot outlet or extension cord.

Replace any appliance or tool if it causes even small electrical shocks, overheats, shorts out or gives off smoke or sparks.

Do not use light bulbs with wattage that is too high for the fixture.

Be sure all electrical equipment bears the Underwriters Laboratories (UL) label.

Additionally, to prevent electrical overloading, avoid using extension cords on a permanent basis and never plug more than two home appliances into an outlet at once. Give special consideration to appliances that use 1,000 or more watts, such as refrigerators, hot plates, irons, microwave ovens, dishwashers, heaters and air conditioners. Do not exceed 1,500 watts for each outlet or circuit. If a circuit breaker trips or a fuse blows frequently, immediately cut down on the number of appliances on that line.

Electrical wiring defects are a major cause of residential blazes. Check periodically for loose wall receptacles, loose wires or loose lighting fixtures. Listen for popping or sizzling sounds behind walls. Immediately shut off, then have a professional replace light switches that are hot to the touch and lights that spark and flicker.

The majority of fires caused by electrical wiring flaws occur in the bedroom. For this reason, Safe Electricity encourages homeowners to have Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters (ACFIs) professionally installed in bedrooms. AFCI is a relatively new technology to address electrical fire hazards and the National Electric Code now requires AFCIs for bedroom circuits in new residential construction.

In many older homes, the capacity of the wiring system has not kept pace with today’s increase in modern appliances and electrical usage. Call a qualified electrician to get expert help.

Finally, a functioning smoke alarm dramatically increases your chances of surviving a fire. Replace the batteries twice a year, purchase fire extinguishers for the kitchen, garage and near fireplaces, and remember to practice a home escape plan frequently with your family.

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