|Date(s)||October 8, 1871|
|Burned area||1,200,000 acres (490,000 ha)|
|Cause||Small fires whipped up by high winds in dry conditions|
The Peshtigo fire was a large forest fire on Oct. 8, 1871, in northeastern Wisconsin, United States, including much of the southern half of the Door Peninsula and adjacent parts of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The largest community in the affected area was Peshtigo, Wisconsin. The fire burned about 1.2 million acres and is the deadliest wildfire in recorded history, with the number of deaths estimated between 1,500 and 2,500.
Occurring on the same day as the more famous Great Chicago Fire, the Peshtigo fire has been largely forgotten, even though it killed far more people. Several cities in Michigan, including Holland and Manistee (across Lake Michigan from Peshtigo) and Port Huron (at the southern end of Lake Huron), also had major fires on the same day.
Slash-and-burn land management was a common way to clear forest for farming and railroad construction. On the day of the Peshtigo fire, a cold front moved in from the west, bringing strong winds that fanned the fires out of control and escalated them to massive proportions. A firestorm ensued. In the words of Gess and Lutz, in a firestorm "superheated flames of at least 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit ... advance on winds of 110 miles per hour or stronger. The diameter of such a fire ranges from one thousand to ten thousand feet ... When a firestorm erupts in a forest, it is a blowup, nature's nuclear explosion ... ": 101
An accurate death toll has never been determined because all local records were destroyed in the fire. Estimates vary from 1,200 to 2,500 deaths. The 1873 Report to the Wisconsin Legislature listed 1,182 names of dead or missing residents. In 1870, the Town of Peshtigo had 1,749 residents. More than 350 bodies were buried in a mass grave, primarily because so many people had died that there was no one left alive who could identify them.
The fire jumped across the Peshtigo River and burned both sides of the town. Survivors reported that the firestorm generated a fire whirl (described as a tornado) that threw rail cars and houses into the air. Many escaped the flames by immersing themselves in the Peshtigo River, wells, or other nearby bodies of water. Some drowned while others succumbed to hypothermia in the frigid river. The Green Island Light was kept lit during the day because of the obscuring smoke, but the three-masted schooner George L. Newman was wrecked offshore, although the crew was rescued.
At the same time, another fire burned parts of the Door Peninsula; because of the coincidence, some incorrectly assumed that the fire had jumped across the waters of Green Bay.[note 1] In Robinsonville (now Champion), Sister Adele Brise and other nuns, farmers, and families fled to a local chapel for protection. Although the chapel was surrounded by flames it survived. It spared the then Village of Sturgeon Bay, which at the time remained east of the village's bay.
Speculation since 1883 has suggested that the start of the Peshtigo and Chicago fires on the same day was not coincidental, but that all the major fires in Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin that day were caused by impact of fragments from Biela's Comet. This hypothesis was revived in a 1985 book, reviewed in a 1997 documentary, and investigated in a 2004 paper published by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Certain behaviors of the Chicago and Peshtigo fires were cited to support the idea of an extraterrestrial cause. However, scientists with expertise in the field pointed out that there has never been a credible report of a fire being started by a meteorite.
In any event, no external source of ignition was needed. There were already numerous small fires burning in the area as part of land-clearing operations and similar activities after a tinder-dry summer. These fires generated so much smoke that the Green Island Light was kept lit continuously for weeks before the firestorm erupted. All that was necessary to trigger the firestorm, plus the other large fires in the Midwest, was a strong wind from the weather front which had moved in that evening.
The Peshtigo Fire Museum, just west of U.S. Highway 41, has a small collection of fire artifacts, first-person accounts, and a graveyard dedicated to victims of the tragedy. A memorial commemorating the fire was dedicated on October 8, 2012 at the bridge over the Peshtigo River.
The chapel where Sister Adele Brise and others sheltered from the fire has become the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help. The site is a Marian shrine, where visitors can make religious pilgrimages.
The combination of wind, topography and ignition sources that generated the firestorm at the boundary between human settlements and natural terrain, is known as the "Peshtigo paradigm". Those conditions were closely studied by the American and British military during World War II to learn how to recreate firestorms during bombing campaigns against cities in Germany and Japan. The devastating bombing of Tokyo using incendiary devices resulted in death tolls comparable to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Other October 8, 1871, fires
Other fire disasters in the Great Lakes
- Great Hinckley Fire of 1894
- Baudette fire of 1910
- Cloquet fire of 1918
- Thumb Fire of 1881 (see also List of Michigan wildfires)
- "Because of the timing, many people later thought—incorrectly, it now appears—that this fire was an offshoot of the one that had struck Peshtigo and that it had somehow jumped across the 30-mile-wide bay."
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- Tornado Memorial Park kiosk historical notes, also see p. 19 of the County C Park and Ride lot panel draft pdf
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