The Washington Times-Herald

March 11, 2014

A pair of fires to remember


The Washington Times-Herald

---- — When two catas­trophic events happen on the same day, and just a couple of hundred miles from each other and yet have no connection with the other, it is indeed a rare event. Just such an event occurred on Oct. 8, 1871. One was in northern Wisconsin, the other in northern Illinois.

The latter one was the terrible Great Chicago Fire, the other was the equally terrible Peshtigo Fire. The Great Chicago Fire will be featured in a future column.

Peshtigo was a small town in northeastern Wisconsin in an area known as the “Great Woods.” Thousands of acres of woods surrounded the village and logging had been going on for several years. Piles of cut over remains of logged trees were everywhere, and huge mounds of sawdust were all around the lumber mills that dotted the landscape. In addition to all the lumbering going on, railroads were being built and the railroad crews had felled a lot of trees.

Many people had also flocked into this area to take advantage of all the available jobs. Most had constructed their houses with lumber, and with all the flammable material just waiting for a spark, it was a calamity waiting to happen.

Little rain had fallen in July, August, September and October, so it was extremely dry, but apparently most people gave little thought to what could happen. No one knows just what did start what has come down in history as the Peshtigo Fire. It may have been a spark from a locomotive, a left unattended campfire or even arson. We will never know.

Once it began, a strong wind from a cold front whipped a little fire into a firestorm that is hard to imagine. It moved across the woodland so fast that towns like Peshtigo and Williamsonville were engulfed before they realized what was happening.

Super-heated air from the fire was estimated to be moving at up to 80 miles an hour. Houses, piles of lumber and even humans suddenly burst into flames. Even the few able to reach a lake or stream and were able to dive into the water found the water so hot their hair would catch on fire.

People not burned to death, and many were reduced to ashes, were killed by suffocation as the fire burned the oxygen right out of the air. It would take years for the vast region burned over by the fire to recover. It is not even known how many died in the firestorm. Estimates of the death toll ran as high as 2,400 and even this may not be the final total. We will never know.

With the Great Chicago Fire occurring on the same day and the remote location of the Peshtigo Fire it has never received as much notoriety as the fire that destroyed Chicago, but only killed around 300 people.

I cannot imagine what it would be like to be in the path of such a terrible fire. With no rapid way to travel and fire all around you and the air super-heated, it would indeed be a nightmare.

What put the fire out was the wind finally dropped and the air was so filled with soot that it caused raindrops to form and rain began to fall and helped to control the fire.

It is frightening today to realize the United States and English Air Forces deliberately created just such a firestorm in Dresden, Germany, during World War II, and the United States did the same later in Japan.

While the Peshtigo Fire is listed as a natural disaster, it was caused by the acts of man seeking to exploit the natural world. Also man had to have a hand in starting the fire as there were no lightning storms anywhere in the Wisconsin area on Oct. 8, 1871, a date that should indeed go down in history as the day the whole world seemed to those involved to be a huge ball of fire.