Wildfires in Oregon and California this summer made spectacular headlines. Press releases issued from the state capitals blamed drought—induced by man-caused climate change, they said—the worst fires in history. But was climate-change really the underlying cause? Were the fires really the worst in history?
Peshtigo today is a small city in northeastern Wisconsin, but 150 years ago, the site of the largest and deadliest single wildfire in North American history.
On October 8, 1871, a great wildfire destroyed a thriving 19th-century lumber community and surroundings. More than 1.2 million acres burned in Marinette County, WI; parts of Michigan’s adjoining Upper Peninsula; and Door County across Green Bay.
Some dispute that embers from the Peshtigo fire ignited forest across Green Bay. But a boat captain logged into his journal he had observed immense fireballs lofted across the 17-mile gap of water toward the peninsula.
The Peshtigo fire broke out the same day as the Great Chicago Fire. Both were driven by strong winds from the southwest. Ironically, the lumber used in constructing post-Civil War Chicago had come from Marinette County.
Legend has it Mrs. O’Leary kept a cow behind her house in southwest Chicago. A hired hand responsible for milking joined a card game next door, leaving behind a burning lantern. The cow kicked over the lamp, igniting nearby hay. Wind quickly spread the fire to nearby structures. It raced for downtown Chicago as an ever-expanding wall of fire. The result is well known. O’Leary’s residence survived, but a hundred thousand city residents were left homeless.
Less known is what happened 250 miles north. Lumbering was in its heyday, albeit primitive by modern standards. Lumberjacks left behind 4-foot-plus-tall stumps. Trimmings fueled wildfires.
The months before had been exceptionally dry. That afternoon, woodsmen set small fires in harvested areas. A strong, unpredicted wind arrived. The separate fires combined into an ever-expanding wall of fire that raced northeast.
Peshtigo residents smelled smoke and observed a red glow in the southwest. Soon, huge firebrands flew overhead and set fire around town.
Fully aware of disaster, people on the west side of the Peshtigo River rushed toward the wooden bridge. In the confusion, many fell into the river and drowned. Herds of cattle and horses, freed from corrals, trampled fleeing residents. Some survivors remained in the water as the firestorm passed overhead.
The better prepared brought along blankets that protected against intense heat. As daylight arrived, they surveyed the blackened scene in shock..
By official count, more than 1,200 perished within the city and surroundings. Experts believe the dead totaled at least 2,500, many being among unnamed recent arrivals. By comparison, the Chicago fire claimed about 300 lives.
With telegraph destroyed Peshtigo was temporarily isolated. Messengers informed the outside world what had happened.
East Coast newspapers fixated on Chicago and ignored Peshtigo. It became a forgotten footnote to history.
Contrast 2021’s summer of wildfires “Out West.” These need not have happened but for official negligence and poor management that have turned many western forests, now overgrown with brush, diseased and insect-infested trees, and tinder into disasters waiting to happen.
Before the Europeans arrived, Native Americans prevented build-up of excess combustibles in their homelands. Natural fire and controlled burns limited what in modern times became frequent major wildfires.
Officials bowing to pressure from activists have transformed wise management practices into the massive wildfires of recent summers.
Utility lines and climate-change were never primary causes. These serve as scapegoats for derelict governors’ offices.
No, the worst wildfire in US history happened 150 years ago in Wisconsin, not in Oregon or California in 2021.
William D. Balgord, Ph.D., heads Environmental & Resources Technology, Inc. in Middleton, Wisconsin .