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Peshtigo Fire

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.

Firestorm

On the day of the fire, a cold front moved in from the west, bringing strong winds that fanned smaller fires and escalated them to massive proportions. By the time it was over, 1,875 square miles (4,850 km² or 1.2 million acres) of forest were consumed, an area approximately twice the size of the state of Rhode Island. Some sources list 1.5 million acres (6,000 km²) burned. Twelve towns were destroyed. An accurate death toll has never been determined since local population records were destroyed in the fire, with estimates of between 1,200 and 2,500 people thought to have lost their lives. The number of names listed on the 1873 Report to the Wisconsin Legislature listed 1182 names. Peshtigo had an estimated 1,700 residents before the fire. More than 350 bodies were buried in a mass grave, primarily because so many had died that no one remained alive who could identify many of them.

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.

Legacy

The Peshtigo Fire Museum, just west of U.S. Route 41, has a small collection of artifacts from the fire, first-person descriptions about the event told by the survivors, and a graveyard dedicated to victims of the tragedy.

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.

Comet theory

One controversial speculation, first suggested in 1883, is that the occurrence of the Peshtigo and Chicago fires on the same day was not a coincidence, but that both fires were caused by the impact of fragments from Comet Biela. However, such a theory is not credible because small meteorites are normally cold to the touch when they reach the ground. In the Peshtigo area, numerous small fires were burning prior to the great fire, set in the process ongoing at the time of clearing forest for farms and a railroad; thus, no additional source of ignition was needed.

Noted Fires

References

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