Fire Makes Wind: Wind Makes Fire

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Late on October 9 rain began to fall, just about 26 hours too late. On the fourteenth the Eagle came out with a Fire Extra. It was a single sheet, one quarter the size of the paper’s usual horse-blanket format. It carried the turned rule, the mourning mark of printers. Editor Noyes apologized for the dwarfed Eagle when there was so much news, and explained his regular shipment of paper had not arrived from Chicago; and Chicago, so he heard, had suffered quite a fire of its own. So it had, and because of it, weeks were to pass before Harper’s Weekly , the news magazine of the day, got around to the horror in the Wisconsin backwoods.

By then the name of Chicago was known the world over. Its fire had been a most satisfying disaster—expensive, dramatic, horrifying, and wonderfully publici/ed. It seemed not to matter that 250 lives were lost in Chicago, while nearly 1,200 died in Wisconsin. Chicago, as the saying went, got the wires and held them. Peshtigo didn’t have any wire.

Survivors of the tragedy of October 8 in Wisconsin agreed on many things observed: as the fire passed over swamps and marshlands, gases were generated which seemed to explode and become balls of fire; several reported “a great black balloon-shaped object which whirled over the tops of trees and exploded.” One does not doubt the reports. Physicists describe the phenomenon thus: The fire exhausts the oxygen near the ground. Gases rise in the void until they meet oxygen. Oxygen ignites the gas pockets, which explode in fire. This is one of the dangers to planes flying over burning forests. Occasionally they encounter independent masses of flame hundreds of feet above the tops of the tallest trees.

But more often the incredible speed with which forest fires spread is due to the tall dead old trees called snags, common to all forests. These snags are the first to ignite. The rising wind tears huge splinters of flaming, decaying wood from the snags and sends them ahead, sailing over the forest—five miles, ten miles—to drop at last as torches to start new bla/es called spot fires. Today the danger from snags is so well recognized and feared that timber owners spend a great deal of money to have them removed. Little wonder that fire crossed the wide Menominee River even while Peshtigo was still burning, to ignite the Michigan forest.

It is doubtful, however, that the fire at Peshtigo crossed Green Bay, though men on the schooner C. I. Hutchison saw her deck come alive from falling coals blown two miles, and a flaming board fell on the steamer Atlanta , seven miles out. But the wind direction was not right to have blown fire from Peshtigo to the settlements on the Green Bay peninsula. Those fires surely came from settlers’ clearing fires, just as those on the Peshtigo side were from clearing operations lor the railroad. Only the long drought was needed to turn any sleeping fire into a conflagration. The old saying is true: Fire makes wind; wind makes more fire.

The great tragedy was that the victims died in vain. Not for many years were the American people ready to do anything much to prevent disasters like that at Peshtigo. Peshtigo was merely the greatest fire in regard to loss of life. The forests continued to burn, and 62 years after Peshtigo I was present as a reporter to watch while the Tillamook fire in Oregon killed twelve and a halt billion feet of great old-growth Douglas fir. It is generally conceded to have been the most destructive woods fire of all time. That only one life was lost was due in some small part to radio, telephone, and good roads, but mostly because there happened to be no villages like Peshtigo in the region burned over.