The Forgotten Fire: On the same day Chicago burned, disaster of even greater proportion struck in Peshtigo, Wis.

The Forgotten Fire
On the same day Chicago burned, disaster of even greater proportion struck in Peshtigo, Wis.
By FireRescue Magazine staff

Most people remember Oct. 8, 1871, for the Great Chicago Fire, and the devastation and destruction that it caused. But on that same day, a fire of even greater destruction took the lives approximately 1,500 people (some sources say 2,400), burned more than 1 million acres and destroyed 12 communities in Wisconsin and upper Michigan.


Map courtesy Michigan State University Department of Geography; http://www.geo.msu.edu/geogmich/fires.html

Certainly drought was a key factor in the intensity of the fire, but all accounts of the fire also focus on sudden winds that fueled the flames and created tornado-like conditions that toppled barns, uprooted trees and tore the roofs off houses. The fire was actually the result of many smaller debris fires set by loggers; when the winds began to blow, the fires spread rapidly and soon a firestorm was moving through the area with hurricane-force intensity. The fire jumped several miles over the waters of Green Bay and jumped the Peshtigo River.

Residents lucky enough to escape the flames survived by submersing themselves in the region’s many ponds and rivers and the Green Bay, but more than one thousand were not so fortunate.

Fire Prevention Week was started to commemorate the Great Chicago Fire, but this year, we should also remember the Peshtigo Fire. Although today’s technology and resources would likely prevent such a disaster from happening again, this incident holds lessons for anyone living in the wildland/urban interface (WUI) and for firefighters who protect WUI areas. Put simply, it’s an reminder that no matter how much we clear and settle the land, we must have respect for the forces of nature—and our helplessness in the face of them.

More on the Peshtigo Fire:

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Comment by Kevin Cork on October 10, 2010 at 12:15pm
Very true, Ralph, I once read a book about the Boston Fire Department. It seemed Boston burned a least once a week, with conditions like that.
Comment by Mark Klaene on October 9, 2010 at 4:22pm
Each year we do a demo with a talk at the local elementary school for fire prevention week. We always mention the history behind it with the chicago fire but also include the Prestigo fire.
Comment by Fireslayer960 on October 8, 2010 at 7:42pm
I watched a special on the Discovery channel that was quite interesting that dealt with this fire, the great Chicago fire, and one that happened in lower Michigan, all at the same time. They have scientists who now believe that it was actually debris from Halley`s Comet that caused all of them. They also believe that a huge crater and the bottom of Lake StClair was a meteor from the same debris field. They quote the local reports from people in Chicago at the time who stated that there was small fires falling from the sky (the debris entering the atmosphere) It was quite an interesting show, I wish I had recorded it. The fire in Lower Michigan consumed thousands of acres of forest, but because it was forest and not heavily populated areas, it was not really news at that time.
Comment by Kevin Cork on October 8, 2010 at 12:18pm
Every time I hear about the Great Chicago fire, I always say "what about the Great Pestigo Fire" no one ever talks about it. A shame really. We drive past one of the wells that some people jumped into, when we go up to Door County, Wisconsin.

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