The initial human toll of the northern Wisconsin forest fires of 1871 numbered to as many as 1,500. The fire wiped out records and burned so hot and across such an area so spacious that an exact number is unknown. Rain mercifully came to prevent the fire from spreading further on Oct. 8, but the devastation was stunning. Almost 1.28 million acres of land had been consumed by the fire and dozens of small communities surrounding Peshtigo were complete destroyed. The total area of the fire was twice the size of the state of Rhode Island.
For the survivors of the fire, many of whom had submerging themselves in the frigid waters of the Peshtigo River, rebuilding would be. The vast majority had been rendered utterly destitute. Aid slowly trickled in and the town attempted an effort to make itself was it once was. Peshtigo today has a similar sized population as the village did prior to the fire.
In the aftermath of the destruction the weaknesses in the town’s fire management plans were painfully obvious. Communication was poor and extremely slow even by the standards of the day. A telegraph from Green Bay to the state capital of Madison was not received until Oct. 10. The delay greatly slowed relief efforts. Further complicating Peshtigo’s misery was that the governor was not at the capital when the telegram arrived. His wife had to order train to bring supplies to the affected areas.
The need for improved communications and a better fire management plan were revealed by the Great Peshtigo Fire. But even with these in place could the fire have been averted? Scholars remain divided on the subject. A fire storm descended on Peshtigo similar to a napalm bomb attack. Atmospheric conditions were perfect for a raging and uncontrollable fire.
There is theory that fragment from Biela’s Comet caused not only the Peshtigo Fire but also the Great Chicago Fire and other fires throughout the Midwest. Regardless of the cause, the ultimate lesson of Peshtigo is for man to always be wary of and respect the power of fire.