Wildfires in Oregon, California, and Washington State this summer made for spectacular headlines. The media took their lead in press releases issued from the respective state capitals to blame drought—allegedly induced by man-caused climate change—for what they called the worst fires in history. But was climate change really the underlying cause? And were the fires really the worst in history? A bit of real history can be enlightening.
Peshtigo is today a small city in northeastern Wisconsin, but 150 years ago it was 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 its forested surroundings. More than 1.2 million acres burned in Marinette County, WI; adjoining portions of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula; and Door County, WI, across Green Bay.
Although some sources dispute the report that embers from the Peshtigo fire ignited forest across Green Bay, a boat captain logged into his journal that he had observed immense fireballs lofted by strong winds crossing the 17-mile gap of water toward the peninsula.
The Peshtigo fire broke out on the same day as the more celebrated Great Chicago Fire. Both were driven by strong, bone-dry winds from the southwest—a century before man-caused climate change could have generated them. Ironically, lumber used in constructing post-Civil War Chicago had come from Marinette County.
Legend has it Mrs. O’Leary kept a cow in a shed behind her house in southwest Chicago. One evening a hired hand responsible for milking instead joined a card game next door, leaving behind a burning lantern. An impatient cow kicked over the lamp, igniting nearby hay, at about 8:30 p.m. Wind quickly spread the fire to nearby structures. It raced for downtown Chicago as an ever-expanding wall of fire. The rest of that story is widely known. The O’Leary residence survived, but a hundred thousand city residents were left homeless.
Not so well known is what happened 250 miles north. In 1871, lumbering was in its heyday in northern Wisconsin. Harvesting was primitive by modern standards. Two lumberjacks alternately drew a saw back-and-forth through a tree trunk at chest height, leaving behind 4-foot-plus-tall stumps to bake in the sun. The trimmings often fueled wildfires.
The months before had been exceptionally dry, the last measurable rain having fallen on July 3. That afternoon, woodsmen set small fires to clean harvested areas. But when the strong, unpredicted wind arrived, the separate fires consolidated into one ever-expanding wall of fire that raced northeast.
Peshtigo residents remained unaware until after sundown. Then those outdoors smelled smoke and observed an ominous red glow in the southwest. Soon, huge firebrands carried by swirling gusts flew overhead and set fire to exposed roofs and structures around town.
Fully aware of the impending disaster, groups of people on the west side of the Peshtigo River rushed toward the wooden bridge. But others, on the east side, believing they were in greater peril, tried to cross to the west. In the confusion, many fell into the river and drowned. Herds of cattle and horses, freed from corals, trampled fleeing residents. The large stream, undammed at the time, contained rapids menacing to those who dared cross. Some managed to reach the opposite bank. Others, deciding to remain in the water, survived the firestorm that passed overhead.
Fire leaped the stream, which was wrongly expected to be a barrier. The better prepared brought along blankets. Wetted, these protected against the intense heat. Lucky survivors spent the night in the river. Once the fire receded, they became chilled and came onto the bank seeking embers to warm themselves. As daylight arrived, they surveyed the blackened scene in shock. Today, the local fire museum holds relatively few artifacts discovered afterward—the conflagration destroyed nearly all combustibles in its path.
By official account, more than 1,200 perished within the city and surroundings. Fire experts now believe the dead totaled at least 2,500. Many among the unnamed victims were recent arrivals working in the forest, lumber mills, and massive wood products plant. By comparison, the Chicago fire claimed only about 300 lives, though the property damage was greater.
With its telegraph line destroyed, the fire left Peshtigo temporarily isolated. Messengers were dispatched to inform the outside world what had just happened.
East Coast newspapers and wire services, fixated on the Chicago fire, ignored Peshtigo, and it became a forgotten footnote to history.
Contrast 2021’s summer of wildfires “Out West.” These need never have grown into massive blazes, despite the habitually dry terrain where they broke out. Over a half century of official neglect and poor forest management have turned many western forests, overgrown with brush, diseased and insect-infested trees, and tinder lying deep on the forest floor, into disasters waiting to happen.
Long before European settlers arrived on this continent, Mother Nature and Native Americans teamed up to prevent the build-up of combustibles in their primeval homeland. A combination of natural and controlled burns limited then what in modern times have become frequent major wildfires. We learn slowly and quickly forget.
California officials bow to political pressure from misguided activists who have transformed wise forest management practices of the past into the massive wildfires of recent summers.
Utility lines and man-caused climate change were never the primary causes. These conveniently serve as scapegoats for the derelict California and Oregon governors’ offices.
No, the worst wildfire in US history happened 150 years ago in Wisconsin, not in Oregon or California in 2021. The national media get it wrong over and over again.
William D. Balgord, Ph.D., heads Environmental & Resources Technology, Inc. in Middleton, WI and is a contributing writer for the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation.