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Teaching Fire Safety

Fire station hosts open house.

It was hard to tell who was having the most fun last Saturday at the various Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department stations along Route 1— the firefighters or Mount Vernon area residents.

There was everything from the "Smoke Crawl" tunnel, to aiming a fire hose at a "burning building," to sitting behind the wheel of a real fire engine. But the open house also provided information about how to prevent fires and what to do to escape a burning building.

All 35 of the department's stations throughout the county participated in a day-long celebration of National Fire Prevention Week.

"We probably had more than 100 people show up by 11 a.m.," said Captain James J. Walsh, Station 11, Penn Daw. "It's not only fun, but it's an opportunity for residents to have a valuable learning experience."

At both Penn Daw and Station 9, Mount Vernon, children could use an actual fire hose to blast water at a make-believe house to knock over wooden flames positioned in the mockup's windows. That was only one of the activities designed to make children aware of fire prevention and safety techniques.

There was the "Smoke Crawl," the miniature cut-away house that showed where smoke alarms should be placed in various areas to give adequate warning in case of a fire, and how to avert fires on a kitchen stove. For both children and adults, there was a film presentation on proper smoke alarm maintenance.

"I think this is a really wonderful opportunity for our children to learn about the profession of firefighting and fire safety," Mount Vernon area resident, Nancy Baker, said. She, her husband Bill, and their two children, Ian and Andrew, learned some of those practicalities from Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department Technician Raymond Beaver at the Mount Vernon Station on Sherwood Hall Lane.

Susan Aaron, who just moved to the Riverside Gardens area of Mount Vernon District this summer from Sarasota, Fla., also appreciated the opportunity to learn about the department's capabilities. Her daughters, Laura and Julia, enjoyed their newly acquired firefighter "helmets" as they viewed the various items on display.

Aaron, who works at Inova Mount Vernon Hospital, within the shadow of the Mount Vernon Fire Station, said, "This is an added treat to getting out of Florida. It was a good time to move with the hurricanes."

All 35 fire stations throughout the county were open and staffed from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on saturday. Each had displays and activities that highlighted fire safety and burn prevention along with various pieces of equipment ranging from ladder trucks to ambulances to EMS rescue vehicles.

THE 2004 NATIONAL Fire Protection Association (NFPA) theme is "Test Your Smoke Alarms." Firefighters and paramedics provided information on:

* Ensuring homes are equipped with working smoke alarms.

* Properly caring for and maintaining smoke alarms.

* Educating the community about "what to do" when the alarm sounds.

* Seasonal fire safety, emergency preparedness, and burn prevention.

Fire prevention observance was established to commemorate the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 that killed more than 250 people and left over 100,000 homeless. It destroyed more than 17,500 structures and burned more than 2,000 acres in that city. The fire began on Oct. 8, 1871, but continued into and did most of its damage on Oct. 9, according to NFPA.

Popular legend has maintained the fire broke out after a cow, belonging to Mrs. Catherine O'Leary, kicked over an oil fired lamp, setting fire to the barn, then the entire city. But, recent research by Chicago historian Robert Cromie has helped debunk that version of events, NFPA reported.

Thjis story has been dubbbed The Moo Myth." Mrs. O'Leary did have a barn where she kept her five milking cows near where the conflagration started, but here is no proof that O'Leary's barn was where the fire started, Cromie says.

Other theories about the fire run the gamut from boys dropping matches while sneaking a smoke, to a neighbor of O'Leary's starting it for some unknown reason, to a fiery meteorite falling to earth on Oct. 8. The latter theory cites that as the cause of fires in Michigan and Wisconsin that same day.

WHILE THE CHICAGO FIRE is the best known blaze to start during that two day span, it was far from the largest. That distinction goes to the Peshtigo Fire, the most devastating forest fire in U.S. history, according to NFPA.

It roared through Northeast Wisconsin, also on Oct. 8 and 9, 1871, consuming 16 towns, killing 1,152 people, and scorching 1.2 million acres. Historical accounts place the blame for that fire on several railroad workers clearing land when they unintentionally started a brush fire.

The small town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, suffered the worst damage. Within one hour it was no more than charred ashes. These two incidents changed how fire and public officials thought about fire safety and prevention.

In 1920, President Woodrow Wilson issued the first National Fire Prevention Day proclamation. Beginning in 1922 Fire Prevention Week has been observed on the Sunday through Saturday in which Oct. 9 falls. Each President since Wilson has followed suit with a national proclamation. It is now the longest running public health and safety observance on record.