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Fully Engaged: April 2013

It’s a little-known fact that on the same day as the Great Chicago Fire there was another huge fire the United States: a fire burned so out of control in Peshtigo, Wis., on Oct. 8, 1871, that 2,500 people died

March 22, 2013
By Ken Sheridan

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It’s a little-known fact that on the same day as the Great Chicago Fire there was another huge fire the United States: a fire burned so out of control in Peshtigo, Wis., on Oct. 8, 1871, that 2,500 people died. Why is it that few people know about this fire?

Other such fires also burned that day including one in Port Huron, Mich., that killed 50 people. And just four days later, there was a catastrophic fire in Windsor, Ont., and much of the town was lost. Again, why haven’t many people heard about these stories?

One doesn’t have to look too far these days to be bombarded with information – news of shootings, earthquakes, tsunamis, wars, financial crises, political scandals, and the list goes on. Many today thrive on such horrific headlines, as it seems to satisfy a dark hunger with us.

Today’s media is much different than it was in 1871. That should go with out saying, I suppose, with all the mass media platforms that quell our appetites with the latest breaking stories. An event happening this very moment can be transmitted around the world within seconds without the aid of a reporter or cameraman. If you can operate a smartphone, you can take a video with it and upload it to YouTube or Facebook, where millions of people can become aware of it within hours, if not minutes – long before a professional news crew can get on scene and publish a story about the incident.

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So why didn’t those other fires on Oct. 8, 1871, make headlines? After all, the fire in Peshtigo was far worse than the Great Chicago Fire; it burned more land and buildings, and killed more people than did its prominent, but lesser, tragedy, and it is now known as the “forgotten fire.”

News is a competitive business, just as it was back in the 1870s. As news of the fire in Chicago was being transmitted, other cities were picking it up and sending their reporters to the Windy City to capture the event and write about it. Many reporters would have travelled by train to get as close as they could before having to walk or ride by horse to reach their destination.

Peshtigo is located on Lake Michigan about 120 kilometres (75 miles) north of Green Bay. In 1870, the town had 1,749 residents, a far cry from the 300,000 people living in Chicago at that time.

By the time reports of the fire in Peshtigo started coming across the wire, there were no reporters left to make the trek to northern rural Wisconsin, which would have taken days from any major city. This story was just not going to get the publicity it deserved in contrast to the other fires.

Back then, media outlets reported their stories to the public mainly via newspapers. Generally, just one major story could be covered at one time. And, most certainly, each paper wanted its own version of the story. 

It’s very important to understand a few things about media that may help you. 1) Everybody likes a story! 2) If you’re not telling the story, somebody else is. 3) If the story being told is not correct, you will have a difficult time fixing it.

Several years ago I took on a project I knew very little about. Understanding the power of media, I wanted to share what my fire department was doing with the public. I did this for a few reasons. Firstly, I thought the public should know what we did. I saw what larger agencies, such as the police, were doing and thought if they can do it, so can we. I researched news and broadcast media sources not only in my municipality but also in my region and my part of the province. I created a distribution list from my Outlook contacts and then made a template of how the media releases would look in print form. Our municipality had a template so I made a few adjustments and used that.

Secondly, I wanted council to know these same facts. I thought that if councillors knew what we were up to, they would be more understanding. This may not have worked exactly as I had wished but, for the most part, council was hearing our story firsthand.

Before I sent out my first release, I met with the local media outlets individually to let them know my strategy: I would give them what they wanted – the news – but I wanted something in return – some publicity about fire safety. It worked. We have a great relationship with many media outlets and they often ask why don’t other fire departments do this, too.

Several years later, our local media outlets have come to rely on us, so much so that they will call looking for stories. We take full advantage of this and do regular pieces on fire prevention and fire-safety topics. We have been on Facebook for about three years and have almost 3,000 likes. We have a Twitter account, our own dedicated webpage (www.norfolkcountyfire.ca ) and an educational website (www.befiresafe.ca ).

All of this was birthed out of the desire to tell a story, because people like stories and we’ve got one to tell them. Tell your story before someone else does, then you’ll know it’s correct.


Ken Sheridan is captain of fire prevention in Norfolk County, Ont. He is a certified fire prevention officer and certified fire and life safety educator for the Province of Ontario. He is a graduate of the Dalhousie University fire administration program and has more than 21 years in fire suppression and fire prevention. Contact him at ken.sheridan@norfolkcounty.ca and follow him on Twitter at @KennyBoy55


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