Peshtigo, Wisconsin. October 8, 1871. A tiny, little logging town in the heart of America. Largely unknown, and yet the site of one of the most severe, under-reported fires not just in American history, but in human history as well; an event that left 1,200 people dead in less than 10 minutes, as a giant fireball engulfed the town, the countryside, and everything else in its path.
October 8th was a Sunday: hot and dry, with less than two inches of rain that summer. The population of the town that morning was roughly 2000, and they had been beaten down by the relentless drought and heat. In addition to the townsfolk, the population had swelled even more over the past few weeks, thanks to the abundance of volunteers in town to help fight the small wildfires that were already popping up across the area. There were so many small fires that the smoke hung in the air like a heavy drapery, making it difficult to breathe.
At 8:30 pm, there was a dull roar that raised the alarm in the town. Strong winds had whipped the surrounding wildfires into a blazing inferno that was barreling towards Peshtigo. Firefighters quickly threw in the towel, when their buckets of water failed to stop the blaze. Suddenly, a surge of flames, roasting at over 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, blasted into the town. The combination of heat and wind created superheated tornadoes with terrifyingly strong speeds. Sand, debris, and burning chards and embers began to rain down on the town, almost as if fire were dropping from Heaven itself. People ran for their lives.
According to eyewitness accounts, the air was literally on fire. In addition to the terrifying sound of the fire licking away at the buildings, the town began to fill with the shrieks and cries of its citizens, as they watched each other being burned alive. Panic turned into hysteria. Some people jumped into wells, only to find the water there boiling; some dropped dead as they breathed, the air being so hot it burned their lungs.
There was only one possible escape: the river, and they headed that way in droves. With hundreds of people standing on it, the bridge over the river collapsed. Those that weren’t crushed, rushed deeper into the river, seeking protection, only to be flattened by falling debris, burned by sparks that fell from the sky or drowned by the multitudes of people crowding in.
An excerpt from "The Great Peshtigo Fire” gives this first-hand account:
It was about ten o'clock when we entered into the river. ... Once in water up to our necks, I thought we would at least be safe from the fire, but it was not so; the flames darted over the river as they did over the land, the air was full of them, or rather the air itself was on fire.
After 90 minutes, the burning hell’s winds changed direction, the fire blew back on itself, and it burned out. The next day, it began to rain.
More than 1,200 people died that day in less than 10 minutes. The entire town was destroyed, save for one building which managed to survive. In the surrounding land, over 1.25 million acres of forest and prairie were charred to nothing.
Eventually the town recovered and people returned. Peshtigo, Wisconsin still exists today.