May 8, 2007 By Chandler Harris
In the 100 days leading up to Oct. 8, 1871, about an inch of rain had fallen in Chicago. Most of the city was pieced together with wood, including the sidewalks and roads, which were basically plank slats laid across dirt, said Peter Alter, curator of the Chicago History Museum.
At the time, Chicago was one of the fastest growing cities in America, but loose construction standards allowed builders to erect ramshackle wooden cottages and shoddy four- to five-story wood buildings.
"The absence of rain for three weeks," reported the Chicago Tribune in 1871, "has left everything in so flammable a condition that a spark might set a fire that would sweep from end to end of the city."
The Great Chicago Fire that followed the drought quickly overwhelmed firefighters, who were slow to react, and surprised officials who hadn't invested in firefighting tools.
Chicago, however, learned from its mistakes, and today its high-tech fire fleet uses an array of new equipment to improve firefighting, communication and emergency life-saving methods.
Thunder of Falling Walls
On that October night, Chicago firefighters -- exhausted from fighting a four-block fire the previous day -- were given the wrong coordinates.
By the time they arrived onsite, it was already too late. The fire spread into the heart of the city consuming the mills and factories along the waterway, and then jumping the Chicago River to other structures.
Firefighters battled to no avail as the fire burned for two days, destroying four square miles of Chicago and killing more than 300 people. Roughly 18,000 buildings were destroyed and 100,000 people lost their homes.
"Everywhere, dust, smoke, flame, heat, thunder of falling walls, crackle of fire, hissing of water, panting of engines, shouts, braying of trumpets, roar of wind, tumult, and uproar," the Chicago Evening Post reported.
"It was a major loss of just about everything," Alter said.
After the fire, Chicago underwent a dramatic rebuilding, constructing some of the first skyscrapers in America. Just 22 years later, the city hosted 21 million visitors during the World's Columbian Exposition.
Chicago has been nicknamed the "Second City," in part because it was the second largest city in America, and also because it was rebuilt after the devastating fire.
The blaze initially spread because of drought, strong winds and a city made primarily of wood. City officials' negligence, however, was a big contributor.
Thirteen years earlier, in 1858, a full-time professional fire corps replaced the volunteer fire department. The new fire department evaluated Chicago and requested new hydrants, larger water mains, more men and two fireboats to patrol the river. According to the Chicago Tribune, the department also recommended the creation of a building inspection agency that would identify poorly constructed structures.
Chicago refused all these requests, fearing that higher taxes would restrict growth in the city.
Fast-forward 136 years, and Chicago is the third largest U.S. city, with a modern downtown coated in concrete and steel. The Chicago Fire Department (CFD) conducts routine fire drills, and in February 2007, unveiled an impressive assortment of new equipment designed to improve firefighting.
"This new technology and equipment will help our department remain the national leader in firefighting and emergency medical response," said Fire Department Commissioner Raymond Orozco, in a press release.
CFD firefighters are now outfitted with personal protective "bunker gear," which provides complete torso coverage and looks similar to body armor. The gear -- which includes protective pants, a fully protective coat with integrated hand protection and high-strength boots -- is billed by CFD officials as "the most dramatic change in clothing worn for firefighting in decades."
The city also bought high-rise, high-pressure fire engines