Tuesday, October 5, 2021

A Fall of Fires: The 150th Anniversary of the Peshtigo and Great Michigan Fires

by Gillian Macdonald

Headline from East Shore News,
October 13, 1871
October 8 marks the 150th Anniversary of world’s deadliest forest fire. In our evermore climate-conscious community, a look back at this devastating event shows the sheer power of the environment.

On Sunday, October 8, 1871, the Peshtigo Fire leveled a broad swath of Wisconsin and Michigan. Cast in the shadow of the Great Fire of Chicago at that same time, the fires at Peshtigo, Holland, Manistee, Port Huron, and beyond swept through the Midwest devastating and eliminating towns in Wisconsin and in the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan. The Peshtigo Fire has largely been forgotten as a result of the notoriety of the Chicago Fire, despite being more deadly. The unnaturally dry conditions in the fall of 1871 created conditions ripe for fires. Historians and meteorologists have pointed to the wind cyclones that formed over the eastern plains as the culprits for spreading the fires.

The fires in Michigan devastated 2.5 million acres of forest (an area the size of the state of Connecticut). Between Peshtigo, Michigan, and Chicago, the wildfires of October 1871 killed between 1500 and 2500 people--the deadliest wildfire in recorded human history. Uninterrupted drought had plagued the Midwest in October of 1871 and the logging town of Peshtigo in northeast Wisconsin became a tinderbox waiting to blow. Residents fled into rivers and Lake Michigan to escape the firestorms that engulfed the town and spread into Menominee County in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Coined as the Great Michigan Fire, that same Sunday, residents in Holland, Michigan, were served the same fate by hurricane-force winds and fires on the coast of Lake Michigan. The winds spread embers across the state and, in just 30 hours, forest fires marched through Grayling, Manistee, Big Rapids, Midland, Bay City, and finally reached Caro where dry conditions were even worse. Faced with 100-foot flames, residents in the Saginaw Bay-area, like those in Peshtigo, rushed into the waters of Lake Huron to escape the blaze.

Painting by Dennis Matheis, from cover of The Holland Fire of October 8, 1871
by Donald van Reken (ca. 1982)

East Shore News (Oceana County), the Escanaba Tribune, and the Sanilac Jeffersonian are among the newspapers that reported on the devastation. The article in the Escanaba Tribune detailed that the “streets were lined with men, women and children fleeing for their lives.” In the same article, Mr. Place (the gentleman sent to the scene) confirmed the decimation of Peshtigo: the “fire came upon them so suddenly that it was not in the reach of mortal power to stay its fury.” The Sanilac Jeffersonian reported on the damages in Port Huron, specifically in Rock Falls, Sand Beach, Elm Creek, Port Hope, and Huron City where residents suffered estimated losses of $10,000 to $100,000. East Shore News described scenes of devastation from Muskegon and Peshtigo, told of how the city of Holland burned, detailed Big Rapids as “entirely destroyed,” reported every house in Birch Creek burned, and lamented “most horrible scenes took place at Peshtigo.”

Destruction in Chicago,
October 1871
The fires of October 1871 served as a warning about land-use practices of the time. The subsequent 150 years have seen a transformation in the mitigation of wildfires. The National Weather Service now has incident meteorologists who support firefighters battling wildfires across the US. But that doesn’t mean that wildfires are no longer a problem we must contend. As the climate changes and weather patterns shift, long periods of dry weather are creating new threats across North America and the globe. Our awareness of the issue has dramatically increased thanks to climate change activists such as Greta Thunberg. As we witnessed 150 years ago, we should never underestimate the destructive power of forest fires, even in the water-rich Great Lakes region.