Thursday, October 8, 2020

The Worst Wildfire In American History

 No, not the California fires, although taken together they are recordbreaking.

Keeping in mind that the California records only go back to the Gold Rush, the native inhabitants not being that big on measuring the things but rather were more preoccupied with escaping with their lives.

In pre-historical context the current California total of four million acres is at the lower end of the estimated 4 to 11 million acres that burned back in the day.*

The worst in history was the Great Peshtigo fire of 1871, although for acres burned the August Complex fire currently burning in Cali may have surpassed Peshtigo a few days ago, 1,017,546 acres and counting versus a minimum estimated 960,000 acres. (but up to 1.2 mm acres)

The thing that made the Peshtigo fire so awful was the loss of life. And the fact that it occurred on the same day as the the Great Chicago Fire meant it was drowned out in the national media and though there were local rescue/relief efforts the focus was 250 miles to the south.

Here's one of the best write-ups, from Exploring off the Beaten Path:

A Glimpse of Hell

Tucked away in the forests of eastern Wisconsin is a town with a story that is horrific beyond belief.   Peshtigo is five miles upriver from the western shore of Lake Michigan's Green Bay and 40 miles north of Lambeau Field. The history books have largely forgotten what happened here on October 8, 1871.   Many of the references will note that Peshtigo was destroyed by fire and a lot of people died and isn't it strange how it happened the same night as the Great Chicago Fire?

Peshtigo wasn't destroyed.  It was incinerated by a fire of biblical proportions. A perfect storm of wind, drought, terrain and combustion stirred up a witch's brew for weeks that finally exploded into a cataclysmic firestorm very much like those that destroyed Dresden and Tokyo in World War II.  For several hours, it created its own weather, including fire tornadoes that picked up railroad cars and turned burning trees into unguided missiles larger than telephone poles. Survivors later remarked that "...this must be what Hell looks like."  When it was done, there was nothing left but ashes. There was no way to fight it and nowhere to run from it.

People didn't just die in Peshtigo.  They spontaneously combusted and were cremated by heat that reached 2000 degrees.  They succumbed instantly from breathing in poisoned, superheated air.  They died of smoke inhalation, were run over by panicked livestock and drowned in the river where they sought refuge. Others were crushed in collapsing buildings, impaled by flying debris and pulverized by all kinds of things dropping out of the sky on top of them.  Still others committed suicide rather than face death by fire.  There is one known case where a father killed his three daughters and then himself to avoid that fate.

The Peshtigo River was the scene of gruesome irony.  People flocked to its frigid waters for protection, but the only way to avoid the heat was to stay underwater. To have a bare head above the water at the height of the fire was deadly.  People wet their heads and covered them with wet material to survive. In the process, some died of hypothermia.

Dozens more died from burns and injuries in the days that followed.  It was hard to get word out about the disaster and the local medical services were totally overwhelmed.

The Peshtigo Fire actually burned up and down both sides of the Green Bay and into the upper peninsula of Michigan.  It is called the Peshtigo Fire because they got the worst of it.  When it was all over, more than 2500 people were dead. More than one million acres of virgin old growth forest were turned to ashes as were over a dozen communities.  Some never re-built and the ones that did were never the same. It was the deadliest fire in American history and remains so to this day.

The Making of a Boom Town

The name Peshtigo is a Native American word from the Chippewa and Menominee tribes that lived in the area.  Depending on who you talk to, it might mean  "snapping turtle" or "wild goose."  For the first 20 years of its existence, it was called Clarksville. Fertile farm land was up for grabs.  The soil was good and there was lots of water, but the short growing season and heavily timbered terrain made farming a challenge. 

Then came the lumbermen.

The first sawmill opened in 1836. The early ones were small family-owned operations.  Farming, trapping, hunting and exploring shared the woods with them.  There was plenty to go around....


*ProPublica: "They Know How to Prevent Megafires. Why Won't Anybody ..."

The National Weather Service has a page looking at the weather that Fall:

The Great Midwest Wildfires of 1871

And via the University of Wisconsin Library:

Vol. I.MARINETTE, WIS, SATURDAY, OCT. 14, 1871. No. 17

Holocaust of Flame.


500 LIVES LOST ! ! !



$2,000,000 worth of Property Destroyed ! !

Terrible Destruction of Life and Property!--Menekaune Destroyed and Marinette in Great Danger--Buildings in Suburbs Burn--McCartney's Mill Gone--Pioneer Manufacturing Co.'s Works destroyed--Catholic Church & New York Mill destroyed--Hundreds Starving and Dying--1500 people Homeless--Peshtigo Harbor, Marinette and Menominee Crowded with Fugitives!--We Must have Help--Heart-Rending Details--Noble efforts of the People to Succor the Distressed--Incidents, &c.