The Peshtigo Fire in Peshtigo, Wisconsin has the distinction of being the deadliest conflagration in US history. It is mostly forgotten, having occurred on October 8, 1871, the same date as the much more renowned Great Chicago Fire. Across Lake Michigan, the town of Holland, Michigan also burned down on the same day.
Peshtigo was a center of manufacture of wood products of all sorts in 1871, sitting as it did in the center of a large area of timbering. The summer was especially dry, and sporadic fires were breaking out in the surrounding forest. Deliberately-set fires were also used extensively at the time to clear land for planting crops and other development. A railroad line was being constructed from Milwaukee to Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and debris from clearing the path was left to burn by the wayside. In the days before the firestorm broke out smoke from these smaller "controlled" fires was so thick that ships on the Bay of Green Bay were forced to use their foghorns and navigate by compass.
On the fateful day a cold front moved in from the west, bringing strong winds that fanned the smaller prairie fires and escalated them to Biblical 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 the local population records were destroyed in the fire, with estimates of between 1,200 and 2,500 people thought to have lost their lives. More than 400 bodies were buried in a mass grave primarily because so many died, no one remained alive who could identify the bodies.
The fire jumped over the water of Green Bay and burned on both sides of the inlet town. Surviving witnesses in Peshtigo reported that the firestorm generated an infernal tornado which threw rail cars and houses into the air. Many of the survivors of the firestorm escaped the flames by hiding in the Peshtigo River or other nearby bodies of water. Some people died by drowning while attempting to flee the firestorm.
The Peshtigo Fire Museum, just west of Highway 41, has a small collection of artifacts from the fire, first-person descriptions about the Peshtigo Fire 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" gives a detailed account of the event. "Firestorm at Peshtigo" by Denise Gess and William Lutz describes this forgotten disaster. In the words of William Lutz, "A firestorm is called nature's nuclear explosion. Here's a wall of flame, a mile high, five miles wide, traveling 90 to 100 miles an hour, hotter than a crematorium, turning sand into glass."
The combination of wind, topography and ignition sources that created the firestorm is known as the Peshtigo Paradigm, which was studied and recreated by the American and British military during World War II for the fire bombings of German and Japanese cities.
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.
- Worst fire largely unknown http://www.sunspot.net/news/printedition/bal-te.journal10oct10,0,214155.column?c
- Website about fire with survivor's stories http://www.peshtigofire.info/
- Fire site with more survivor's stories http://www.rootsweb.com/~wioconto/Fire.htm
- Discovery Channel story about comet impact theory http://dsc.discovery.com/news/briefs/20040301/comet.html
- Peshtigo website discussion of comet impact theory http://www.peshtigofire.info/impact.htm