What is the deadliest wildfire in US history?

Much of the media coverage of the wildfires that destroyed the city of Lahaina, Maui, on August 8 describes them as the deadliest wildfires “in modern American history” or “in America for more than a century.” With 115 people killed and Dozens are still missingIt’s hard to understand how the fire could look worse.

But on the evening of October 8, 1871, the deadliest wildfire in recorded world history destroyed 1.5 million acres of northern Wisconsin. By the next day, the thriving city of Peshtigo was destroyed and up to 2,500 people killed.

Preparing to burn

The painful irony was that the peshtigo could not exist without fire.

Farmers who worked the surrounding lands used slash-and-burn methods, and railroad companies set fires to clear the land for their tracks. Trains that ran on those tracks regularly threw sparks that ignited grass fires.

Mills and factories within the city not only used fire in their operations, but also produced enormous quantities of wood waste: sawdust was stuffed under wooden sidewalks and into the foundations of completely wooden houses, piled up in the streets and left in huge piles. When it can’t be used.

In the lumbering camps that fill the forests, as much as a quarter of a tree may be left felled; Among the waste was what the US Forest Service calls “Red slash“—Dead branches of conifer trees still attached with highly flammable needles.

Read more: Maui’s deadly wildfires burn in Lahaina

How did the Peshtigo fire start?

In 1871, it would have been normal for the timber to be floated downstream for processing, but severe summer drought dried up the streams and swamps.

As a result, wildfires were constantly burning—throughout the Peshtigo and throughout the upper Midwest—and city residents became accustomed to the constant smoke in the air. Ships on Lake Michigan were forced to navigate by compass in fog so thick that ship captains could not see them even in the middle of the day, and schools were canceled because so many children were suffering from severe coughs.

“It is difficult to give any idea of ​​excessive dryness,” fire survivor Elbridge Merrill wrote a few years later. The utmost care was taken to prevent fires, but despite every precaution, there were fires all around us.

Read more: Two years after the deadly Black Summer fires in Australia

And start fires

As the night of October 8th fell, the winds began to intensify. Although there was no way for the Peshtigo residents to know this, a tornadic storm had been hitting them since the day before, and it was whipping those little fires into a frenzy.

The National Weather Service had been created only a year earlier; that it Emerging weather maps It reveals a low pressure system rising from the Great Plains, which is so large that it covers about half of the United States Like Hurricane Dora approaching Hawaiithe storm fanned the burning landscape.

And in the narration of his salvation from Hell, The finger of God is thereCatholic priest Peter Bernin reported that the air became heavy, and he felt uncomfortable. Then to the west he saw a thick cloud hanging glowing on the horizon and heard “Distant roar …thunder that became more distinct as it approached every moment.

Ash started falling like snow. Outside of town, Merrill could hear the fire approaching from 30 miles away as a shower of embers began to fall.

Read more: Yes, Wisconsin has a wildfire season

Peshtigo fire

In a series of events familiar to many wildfires, people hesitated, unsure of the risks. Some of the city’s residents began preparing wagons and gathering their pets and belongings. Others towed fire trucksdetermined to repel these flames as they had done so many times before.

But it soon became clear that there was no time left. Bernin summed up his emerging dread in one poignant sentence: “I have delayed my departure for too long.” Like those in Lahaina Desperate dove in the oceanHe joined the crowd of people fleeing to the Pashtigo River.

Soon, the heat became unbearable, and the roaring noise became deafening. The wind tossed fences, railroad cars, and even entire buildings into the air. Some people were consumed by fire, while others succumbed to the fumes and smoke.

Even those who reached the river were not safe: livestock in the river were terrorizing, churning water around people who often did not know how to swim. Although the air was very hot, the water, paradoxically, was not Causes hypothermia.

Within about an hour, the peshtigo had completely disappeared.

Read more: Stunning views from space reveal the ferocity and scale of Canadian wildfires

Major wildfires in the Midwest

The flames jumped the river and swept through the surrounding farmland as far north as the town of Marinette. That night, the sky was orange across the upper Midwest. Chicago burned down. In Michigan, Holland, Port Huron and Manistee burned. It burned in northeastern Minnesota.

But the Peshtigo, which was wiped out by a fiery tornado, was the worst. Dry conditions, environmental fuels and wind have combined to create a firestorm: a fire so intense that it creates its own weather patterns.

In their history, Dennis Jess and William Lutz wrote, Firestorm in PeshtigoA firestorm is “a natural nuclear explosion, generating the same heat and destructive force as an atomic bomb.”

With winds gusting up to 110 miles per hour, the fire’s temperature likely approached 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit — causing coins in people’s pockets to liquefy, rocks to split, railway tracks to melt, and sand to vitrify.

Read more: Dry lightning causes California’s most destructive wildfires

Consequences and the future

Current estimates put the loss of life at between 1,500 and 2,500 people, but the true number will never be known.

The mobile nature of lumbering cities meant that an accurate list of the names of people who were there that night could not be created. Many bodies were completely unidentified and were simply added to mass graves, and some victims literally disappeared.

For those in Lahaina who are struggling with this Identification of remains through DNA And Search for the lostThe story is familiar. Officials in Lahaina stated, Because the fire was so hot that it liquefied steel, some victims may never be found.

Unfortunately, other elements of the historic ring of fire are also familiar. Like the irresponsible plodding practices of the Peshtigo, human changes to the environment – ​​e.g Non-native herbs It spreads across Maui and Intensification of droughts Driven by climate change – prepare Lahaina to burn.

Aid was slow to reach the Peshtigo, thanks in part to its regional anonymity compared to the smaller but more widespread fire that occurred in Chicago the same night. But the city was eventually rebuilt, and today it is anchored by the Peshtigo Fire Museum and the Peshtigo Fire Cemetery.

Read more: Long after a fire is out, wildfire smoke and its impact lingers — even if we can’t see it

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