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How Has Red Cross Fire Response Changed Over the Years?

  • Refugees at the Bad Axe Hotel, Michigan forest fires of 1881. Charles Graham/American Red Cross.
    Refugees at the Bad Axe Hotel, Michigan forest fires of 1881. Charles Graham/American Red Cross.
  • Survivors of the Michigan forest fires of 1881 that left thousands homeless. American Red Cross Archives.
    Survivors of the Michigan forest fires of 1881 that left thousands homeless. American Red Cross Archives.
  • Among the Red Cross relief supplies given out was this chair awarded to a family burned out in the Michigan Forest Fire of 1881.
    Among the Red Cross relief supplies given out was this chair awarded to a family burned out in the Michigan Forest Fire of 1881.
  • Mrs. A.R. Bradshaw stands in front of her smoldering home.
    Mrs. A.R. Bradshaw stands in front of her smoldering home. A hotel was paid for by the Red Cross, and a change of clothes was purchased by a member of the Board. July 30, 1960, Chester, VA. Richmond News Leader photo by Benjamin Wells.
  • Father and daughter burst into tears as their home burns to the ground at Upper Merion, Pennsylvania.
    Father and daughter burst into tears as their home burns to the ground at Upper Merion, Pennsylvania.
  • 1972 tenement fire, photo of Red Cross worker helping a child.
    1972 tenement fire, photo of Red Cross worker helping a child.
Fire response from 1881 to today.

If you had to guess, what would you say was the first major response of the American Red Cross?

While the Red Cross, with Clara Barton at its head, was largely devoted to disaster relief for the first 20 years of its existence, the Red Cross flag flew officially for the first time in this country in 1881 for fire relief. Barton issued a public appeal for funds and clothing to aid victims of a devastating forest fire in Michigan.

Surprised?

The Red Cross has helped fire victims for over 130 years, and we aren’t slowing down yet. Here’s a brief history of how we helped victims of the Michigan forest fire and other responses from then until today.

1881 MICHIGAN FOREST FIRE

Small land-clearing fires from the Michigan settlers combined with high winds and dry refuse left by the local timber industry formed a wildfire that burned through more than a million acres in 24 hours in 1881. The fire left thousands of rural survivors homeless and without crops, livestock or jobs. It became known as the Michigan "Thumb Fire" (named after the shape of the Lower Peninsula); nearly 300 people lost their lives (sources vary on this number) and the disaster caused $2.5 million in damages.

Already famous for her Civil War relief work among soldiers, Barton saw this catastrophe as a chance to prove to the public and the government what an active Red Cross society in America could contribute.

Barton never traveled to Michigan herself, instead dispatching two men to oversee the distribution of the relief goods and cash. The reports they sent back from the "burned district" confirmed that newspaper accounts and reports from officials had not exaggerated the scale of the tragedy.

In all, the fire burned 70 townships, destroyed 1,521 houses, and left 14,000 people in desperate need of help. The Red Cross contribution totaled approximately $80,000 in cash and supplies.

1960 BRADSHAW FAMILY

When Mrs. A.R. Bradshaw and her family returned to their Chester, Virginia, home on July 30, 1960, they found a smoldering ruin. The Bradshaws spent the weekend in a motel, with the charge paid by the American Red Cross. Clothing for the children, and for Mr. Bradshaw, who needed a change of clothing to work in, was purchased by a member of the Board.

1964 POLICY CHANGE

Before 1964, disaster relief wasn’t typically provided unless a situation included five or more families, according to the 1981 book American Red Cross: The First Century by Patrick Gilbo. As it became apparent a significant need existed in situations with less than a national scope, the 1964 national convention passed a resolution that eliminated the long-established guideline and opened the door to respond to single-family situations, like home fires.

TODAY

Today, the Red Cross not only responds to a home fire every eight minutes across the country, but also helps families prevent and prepare for home fires. A Home Fire Campaign launched in October of 2014 aims to reduce the number of fire related injury and death by 25 percent over the next five years.

Find out how you can help people affected by disasters big and small, or join the campaign as a volunteer by contacting your local Red Cross chapter.

About the American Red Cross:
The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides emotional support to victims of disasters; supplies about 40 percent of the nation's blood; teaches skills that save lives; provides international humanitarian aid; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a not-for-profit organization that depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its mission. For more information, please visit redcross.org or cruzrojaamericana.org, or visit us on Twitter at @RedCross.

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