flare of fire on wood with black smokes

BALLS OF LIGHT IN 1871 NEWSPAPERS: What caused the worst wildfire in American history?

Today is the anniversary of the worst wildfire in American history, the Peshtigo Fire of 1871.

Over a million acres burned in eastern Wisconsin and Michigan’s upper peninsula, and it turned into a firestorm that left between 1,500 and 2,500 people dead.

Whole families were killed, and the lack of survivors made an accurate count difficult.

Peshtigo is overshadowed by the Great Chicago Fire that happened at the same time, and there have been attempts to link them together, and blame a meteorite.

The Area Research Center, the state historical society’s depository for records for 11 counties in Northeast Wisconsin, has papers and manuscripts of all kinds, she said.

The story of the Peshtigo Fire, gleaned from survivor accounts and conjecture, is that railroad workers clearing land for tracks that Sunday evening started a brush fire which, somehow, became an inferno.

It had been an unusually dry summer, and the fire moved fast. Some survivors said it moved so fast it was “like a tornado.”

Map of fire

Even more… The sudden, convulsive speed of the flames consumed available oxygen. Some trying to flee burst into flames.

It scorched 1.2 to 1.5 million acres, although it skipped over the waters of Green Bay to burn parts of Door and Kewaunee counties. The damage estimate was at $169 million, about the same as for the Chicago Fire.

The fire also burned 16 other towns, but the damage in Peshtigo was the worst. The city was gone in an hour. In Peshtigo alone, 800 lives were lost.

This report was in the Wisconsin State Journal on October 23, 1871–dispatches took longer then obviously:

This report that was circulated around the national newspaper scene on October 25, 1871, spoke of “balls of fire” being observed to fall like meteors in different parts of the town before the fire… It was said they ignited anything they came in contact with:

While it is categorized as fringe and conspiracy, the Comet Biela broke up just before these tragic events.. could that have been the catalyst? That theory continues to captivate and cause questions..

But maybe it is just explained by … mundane nature..

The area had experienced an extremely dry summer that year. This, combined with gusty winds that moved in with a front that October evening, were capable of generating rapidly expanding blazes from available ignition sources of which there were plenty across the region.

Or a comet..

You choose.

The balls of light were reported in newspapers in 1871. Did fake news exist then?

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