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Planet Earth

What Was the Deadliest Wildfire in U.S. History?

In 1871, this Wisconsin lumbering town burned to the ground. Learn about the deadliet wildfire recorded in U.S. history.

By Elisa NeckarSep 13, 2023 1:00 PM
Drawing of the Peshtigo Fire, showing people seeking refuge in the Peshtigo River
Drawing of the Peshtigo Fire, showing people seeking refuge in the Peshtigo River. Drawing originally appeared in Harper's Weekly in 1871. (Credit: G. J. Tisdale/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)


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Much of the coverage of the wildfire that destroyed the Maui city of Lahaina on Aug. 8 labels it the deadliest wildfire “in modern American history” or “in America in over a century.” With 115 people known dead and dozens still missing, it’s hard to grasp what a worse fire could look like.

But on the evening of Oct. 8, 1871, the deadliest wildfire in recorded world history burned through 1.5 million acres of northern Wisconsin. By the next day, the booming town of Peshtigo had been annihilated and up to 2,500 people were dead.

Primed to Burn

The painful irony was that Peshtigo could not have existed without fire.

The farmers who worked the surrounding land used slash-and-burn methods, and railroad companies set fires to clear ground for their tracks. The trains that rode those tracks threw sparks that regularly ignited grassfires.

The mills and factories within town not only used fire in their operations, but also produced vast quantities of wooden waste: Sawdust was stuffed under the plank sidewalks and in the foundations of all-wood houses, layered in the streets and in left in huge piles when it couldn’t be used.

In the lumbering camps that filled the forests, up to a quarter of a cut tree might be left behind; among the detritus was what the U.S. Forest Service calls “red slash” — dead branches of conifer trees with highly combustible needles still attached.

Read More: Maui’s Deadly Wildfires Burn Through Lahaina

How Did the Peshtigo Fire Start?

In 1871, the timber would normally have been floated downstream for processing, but an extensive summer drought had dried up the waterways and marshlands.

Brushfires were constantly burning as a result — all around Peshtigo and throughout the Upper Midwest — and the townsfolk had become used to the constant smoke in the air. Ships on Lake Michigan were forced to navigate by compass through haze so dense their captains couldn’t see even at midday, and school had been cancelled because so many children were ill with hacking coughs.

Fire survivor Elbridge Merrill wrote some years later: “It is hard to give an idea of the excessive drought. The greatest care was used to guard against fire but in spite of all precautions, there were fires everywhere about us.”

Read More: Following Two Years After Australia's Lethal Black Summer Fires

Fanning the Flames

As night fell on Oct. 8th, the wind began to pick up. Though there was no way for those in Peshtigo to know it, a cyclonic storm had been bearing down on them since the day before, and it was whipping those small brushfires into a frenzy.

A national weather service had been established only a year previously; its nascent weather maps reveal a low-pressure system spiraling out from the Great Plains, so large it covered about half the U.S. Like Hurricane Dora nearing Hawaii, the windstorm fanned the smoldering landscape.

In his account of surviving the fire, The Finger of God Is There, Catholic priest Peter Pernin reported that the air grew heavy, and he felt uneasy. Then, to the west, he saw a dense cloud overhanging a glow along the horizon and heard “a distant roaring … the muttered thunder of which became more distinct as it drew each moment nearer.”

Ash began to fall 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

The Peshtigo Fire

In a series of events familiar from many wildfires, people hesitated, uncertain of the risk. Some townsfolk began readying wagons and gathering their pets and belongings; others pulled out the fire engines, intending to beat back this fire as they had so many before.

But it rapidly became evident that there was no time left. Pernin summarized his dawning dread in a poignant single sentence: “I had delayed my departure too long.” Like those in Lahaina who dove desperately into the ocean, he joined the throng of people fleeing to the Peshtigo River.

Shortly after, the heat became unbearable, the noise a deafening roar. The wind threw fencing, railroad cars and even whole buildings into the air. Some people were consumed by flames, others succumbed to the fumes and smoke.

Even those who made it to the river weren’t safe: Livestock in the river struggled in terror, churning the water around people who often didn’t know how to swim. And though the air was super-heated, the water wasn’t — paradoxically causing hypothermia.

Within about an hour, Peshtigo completely disappeared.

Read More: Striking Views From Space Reveal the Ferocity and Wide Scope of Canadian Wildfires

Great Midwest Wildfires

The fire leapt the river, sweeping through the surrounding farmland and north to the town of Marinette. That night, skies were orange all around the Upper Midwest. Chicago burned. In Michigan, Holland and Port Huron and Manistee burned. Northeastern Minnesota burned.

But Peshtigo, decimated by a literal tornado of fire, fared the worst. Dry conditions, environmental fuel and winds had combined to create a firestorm: a fire so intense, it creates its own weather patterns.

Denise Gess and William Lutz wrote in their history, Firestorm at Peshtigo, that a firestorm is “nature’s nuclear explosion, generating the same heat and devastating power as an atomic bomb.”

With winds gusting to 110 miles per hour, the fire would likely have approached 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit — causing coins to liquify in people’s pockets, boulders to split, railroad tracks to melt away, sand to vitrify.

Read More: Dry Lightning Causes Most Destructive California Wildfires

Aftermath and Future

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

The itinerant nature of lumbering towns meant that no accurate list of who had been there that night could be created. Many bodies were completely unidentifiable, simply added to mass graves, and some victims literally disappeared.

To those in Lahaina struggling to identify remains through DNA and search for the missing, the story is familiar. Lahaina officials have stated that, given the fire was so hot it liquefied steel, some victims may simply never be found.

Unfortunately, other elements of the historical fire ring familiar as well. Like the irresponsible lumbering practices at Peshtigo, human changes to the environment — such as the nonnative grasses spreading across Maui and intensifying droughts spurred by climate change — primed Lahaina to burn.

Aid was slow to come to Peshtigo, thanks in part to its provincial anonymity in comparison to the much smaller but more publicized fire that happened in Chicago the same night. But the town eventually rebuilt, and is today anchored by the Peshtigo Fire Museum and the Peshtigo Fire Cemetery.

Read More: Long After the Flames Go Out, Wildfire Smoke and Its Impact Lingers — Even if We Can’t See It

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