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.