Fires have destroyed lives and property throughout history, but one of the most famous ones and another, one of the most devastating ones, took place this week in 1871, just a few hundred miles apart.

The Great Chicago Fire burned out of control for three days, Oct. 7-9, scorching more than 17,000 buildings and leaving 90,000 people homeless. Considering the fire’s size and intensity, it was remarkable that fewer than 300 people perished.

That was not the case in Peshtigo, Wis., where more than 800 lives were lost (some estimates are much higher), making it the most deadly in U.S. history. The fire burned communities in a remote area twice the size of Rhode Island.

Almost a half-century later, in 1920, President Woodrow Wilson declared Oct. 9 Fire Prevention Day. Two years later under President Warren Harding, Fire Prevention Week was established, always to be held in the week during which Oct. 9 falls.

This year’s theme for Fire Prevention Week is “Have Two Ways Out” and it is good advice for when you are home or away from home.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, only one-third of Americans have developed and practiced a home fire escape plan. Probably fewer have a “home fire drill” the recommended two times a year.

The Wilton Fire Department reminds everyone that in the event of a fire, every second counts. In less than 30 seconds a small flame can burn out of control. Minutes later your entire house can fill with black smoke and become engulfed in flames.

In devising a home escape plan, draw a map of each level of your home and show all doors and windows. Have two ways out of each room. Make sure all doors and windows that lead outside open easily. Teach children how to escape on their own in case you cannot help them.

Practice your plan in the day and at night.

When traveling or out for an evening’s entertainment, take note of the emergency exits. If it is difficult or confusing to get out of your own house when it is filling up with smoke, how hard will it be in unfamiliar territory?

Studies have shown that in times of panic, when a quick way out is necessary, instead of seeking an alternate and perhaps closer exit, people tend to instinctively flee to the spot where they first entered.

If you’d like to get information from a real firefighter, you may visit the fire truck at Wilton Library on Saturday, Oct. 13, from 2 to 4. You may also call the firehouse at 203-834-6260.