The October 8, 1871 Peshtigo Fire in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, has the distinction of being the conflagration that caused the most deaths by fire in United States history. The Peshtigo Fire is mostly forgotten, having occurred on the same date as the much more renowned Great Chicago Fire. The same day, across Lake Michigan, the cities of Holland, and Manistee, Michigan also burned, and the same fate befell Port Huron at the southern end of Lake Huron.
The fire was so intense it jumped several miles over the waters of Green Bay and burned parts of the Door Peninsula as well as jumping the Peshtigo River itself to burn on both sides of the inlet town. Surviving witnesses in Peshtigo reported that the firestorm generated a fire tornado which threw rail cars and houses into the air. Many of the survivors of the firestorm escaped the flames by immersing themselves in the Peshtigo River, wells, or other nearby bodies of water. Some people drowned while doing so.
National Fire Protection Week in October was started to commemorate the economic loss of the Chicago fire, which was ironically dwarfed by unremembered Peshtigo. A recent publication titled Firestorm at Peshtigo: A Town, Its People, and the Deadliest Fire in American History (ISBN 978-0805072938), by Denise Gess and William Lutz, gives a detailed account of the event. In the words of Lutz, "A firestorm is called nature's nuclear explosion. Here's a wall of flame, a mile high, five miles (8 km) wide, traveling 90 to an hour, hotter than a crematorium, turning sand into glass."
The combination of wind, topography, and ignition sources that created the firestorm, primarily representing the conditions at the boundaries of human settlement and natural areas, is known as the Peshtigo Paradigm. This paradigm was closely studied by the American and British military during World War II to learn how to recreate firestorm conditions for bombing campaigns against cities in Germany and Japan. The bombing of Dresden and the even more severe one of Tokyo by incendiary devices resulted in death tolls comparable to or exceeding those of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
During the 2004-05 school year, the Peshtigo High School band performed a piece entitled "Finger of God" inspired by the Peshtigo Fire. The work, composed by John Georgeson, used quotes throughout from survivors of the fire.
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