Wednesday, August 24, 2011
Firestorm at Peshtigo
Firestorm at Peshtigo: A Town, Its People, and the Deadliest Fire in American History Denise Guss and William Lutz
On October 8, 1871, Peshtigo, WI burned down. A combination of drought, wide spread and intense forest fires, and a storm system that most likely spawned an F5 tornado combined to create a firestorm that the armed forces would study in WWII to plan the firebombings of Dresden and Tokyo.
There was a tornado of fire, 1000 feet high and 5 miles wide. Sand was turned to glass. A billion tress in Wisconsin's virgin forest were gone--a forest so thick and dense you couldn't walk through it in a straight line, with trees 180 feet tall and so thick two people couldn't hold hands around them. Embers and shrapnel from exploding trees set fire to boats docked 7 miles offshore. The peat bogs smoked for a year afterwards.
Peshtigo had 2000 known residents. 1800 died. Many others outside of Peshtigo, on both sides of the Bay of Greeny Bay died for an estimated death count of 2500. It's hard to say-- no one knew how many people were in the area. Lumberjacks and railway crews mean a transient population. Immigrants arrived on a regular basis, including a boatload the day before. Plus, the fire burned so hot that all that was left of many of the dead was a pile of ashes that then blew away in the storm.
It's the deadliest fire in US history and one of the deadliest natural disasters. (Galveston's the worst, Johnstown or Peshtigo are second and third. Using the numbers that Gess and Lutz put forth, Pestigo was more deadly than the Johnstown Flood.)
Despite all this, have you ever heard of it?
I'm guessing you haven't, and I know why--it took place on the same night as the Great Chicago Fire. We learned about it in school, mainly because we were closer to Peshtigo (about 50 miles north of Green Bay) than Chicago. Even in school though, it was taught alongside Chicago, more of a "by the way, the same night Peshtigo burned down and did a lot more damage and killed a lot more people." I always thought it was coincidence that both fires happened at the same night.
No. Fires had been raging in the upper midwest for months. A prairie fire that swept from the Dakotas, across Minnesota, hit the Wisconsin woods where it met with fires already burning. Coupled with a severe weather pattern on the 8th and large portions of the upper midwest burned on October 8th. Not just in Chicago and NE Wisconsin, but large chunks of Michigan, too.
And when morning dawned, help was hard to come by. The telegraph lines had burned and when they could get their pleas to Green Bay, Milwaukee, Madison, they had already dispatched any supplies they had on hand to Chicago.
This is an excellent social history of Peshtigo before, during, and after the fire. It focuses mainly on the people and the town. It briefly mentions the Michigan fires, but doesn't really talk about them. It does talk about the Chicago fire. I could have used a little more "big picture" to see how much burned that night.
My only other complaint is the way they use "Green Bay" is confusing. Green Bay refers to two things-- the city and the actual bay in Lake Michigan that the city (and Peshtigo) are on. In the Green Bay area, we tend to say Green Bay for the city and the more clear, if a bit redundant "Bay of Green Bay" for the body of water. The book doesn't distinguish between the two and sometimes I thought they were talking about town when they were talking about the bay and vice versa.
Where the book really comes alive is in the prose. Gess and Lutz are both known for their fiction writing and they bring that imagery to this book, so we get passages like this:
Most firest are containable, controllable; few ever reach dangerous proportions. In a firestorm, size is not as important as intensity, unpredictability, and the kaleidoscopic effects produced from such extremes of heat and movement. A firestorm's operatic voice displays incredible range, from the barely audible soft cackle to the roar. Its choreography is multipatterned; it slinks, streams, shoots, vibrates, marches, pitches, bursts, stalks, and rolls forward, upward, backward, and in circles. Because it is blind and deaf, it cannot be trusted to make distinctions, will not see of hear the pain of children, the cries of women, the shouts of men. A firestorm knows no empathy, only hunger--and never thirst. Wind is the invisible bully at its ack, whipping flames into a frenzy of lusty gorging. It must eat and cannot get enough and the more food it consumes the hotter and more passionate it becomes. It cannot contain itself and blows its volatile, noxious breath sky-high in whirring convection columns as the cold air rushes in at its feet, pumping its overheated, bloated belly full of hot air upward. Sand will feed it, bark, kerosene, hay, sawdust, clothes, coal, leaves, wooden buildings, trees, flesh. Anything combustible will do. Staying alive is all that matters for a firestorm.
You can feel the smoke burn your lungs reading this book. I highly recommend it as an excellent introduction to a forgotten tragedy.
Book Provided by... my local library
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