The Forgotten FireOn 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.
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: