Fort McMurray Fire Vs Great Peshtigo Fire, 1871

When the forest fires came sweeping into Peshtigo in 1871, there was no advance warning. Winds may have been over a hundred miles an hour. The heat melted things that demonstrate the fire’s temperature was over 2000° F. The flames were over 200 feet tall.

Drought had the city fathers worried about fire, and they had even stockpiled water in tanks to fight fires, but this fire hit with speed we can hardly imagine.

Every building in town was built of wood, the bridges were wood, and the roads were paved with what?  Sawdust.

It is worth googling this fire, and reading some of the accounts. The fire came so fast that it was upon some before they knew what hit them. One report states 300 were burned in a popular tavern. For the rest, it was a race for the river.

Fire 1 WER2002-06

Fire 2 WER2002-07a

An excellent post describing the panic, (if not focused on facts and numbers), is here:   I think this is the most telling quote, from the Peshtigo Eagle, a local newspaper of that time:

“The frenzy of despair seized on all hearts, strong men bowed like reeds before the fiery blast, women and children, like frightened spectres flitting through the awful gloom, were swept like Autumn leaves. Crowds rushed for the bridge, but the bridge, like all else, was receiving its baptism of fire. Hundreds crowded into the river, cattle plunged in with them, and being huddled together in rise general confusion of the moment, many who, had taken to the water to avoid the flames were drowned. A great many were on the blazing bridge when it fell. The debris from the burning town was hurled over and on the heads of those who were in the water, killing many and maiming others so that they gave up in despair and sank to a watery grave.”

It is hard to rely on the casualty figures, but it seems over a thousand died. Nor did the survivors get much press or swift relief, for even as this fire started to die down the Great Chicago Fire was starting, and it was the front page news. Even less newsworthy was another huge fire on the other side of Green Bay. The area scorched was huge.

Fire 3 PeshtigoFireExtend

In other words, these things happen. Not only do they happen in the west of the USA, but they even happen in the east. If you don’t believe me, google “the 1947 forest fires up in Maine”.

I lived up in Maine in the 1970’s, and heard old-timers talk about what a freaky October that was, but I find few young people in New England even dream forest fires are anything but something that happens “out west”. The few who are slightly aware fires can happen in the east tend to have visited Arcadia National Park, which has a few placards that inform tourists how the flames leaped across the inlet and consumed the island before burning out with a strange fireball out over the sea (according to local fishermen.) That event is still dimly remembered, but nearly no one remembers another fire was worse in the most southern part of Maine, York County, where two towns were burned to the ground.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to downplay how awful it is for the people of Fort MacMurray to see their homes destroyed. But at least they had warning, and could hop in a car that is much faster than a horse, a car that doesn’t freak out like a horse does. The picture below is from an amazing video shot from a car fleeing Fort MacMurray, that had to drive past flames I think would have turned most horses right around in their tracks.

Fire 4 160505132021-restricted-10-ca-wildfires-0505-exlarge-169

I should also point out Fort MacMurray’s bridges are not made of wood, and are not burning and collapsing, as people flee. Furthermore, the modern highway is paved with what?  Sawdust on fire? Or concrete that doesn’t burn?

In other words, we should be thanking our lucky stars. People are not burning to death. They are escaping, thanks to modern vehicles.

Fire 5 160505131628-07-ca-wildfire-0505-exlarge-169

I know it is very hard to feel lucky when you have worked very hard, and all you have worked for winds up looking like this:

Fire 6 _89613358_2f50a65a-21dd-4489-9134-ccbd19c3fbb3

But think again. All the stuff that was destroyed was just stuff. It’s the people that matter, and they were not destroyed.

This is something people need to remember, when the horizon looks like this, (and it isn’t a pretty sunset):

Fire 7 160505131400-04-ca-wildfire-0505-exlarge-169

In such a situation what is most important is people, not stuff. If you get out with your family alive, thank your lucky stars.

Suppose what reddened the skies at Fort McMurray was not a forest fire, but a volcano. Suppose no one got out alive, and all were buried in ash, and we could glimpse their last moments as they fled. Suppose it was Pompeii.

Fire 8 workers with casts of bodies at pompeii


Among the people frozen-in-time at Pompeii are many who obviously cared for the right things, and there is even the plaster cast of a couple kissing as they died. However a plaster cast that influenced my boyhood has apparently been lost. (Some plaster casts were exposed to the weather, if not tourists, or even to youths with a destructive sense of humor, and have crumbled away. There was no museum large enough to hold them all.)

The particular lost-cast I remember was a cast burned into my memory, which I have never been able to find on the web. The book-of-my-boyhood described the person as “The Miser”, and it was of a man laying on his stomach but with his head up, and in his right hand was a bag of money. As a boy I pitied that man, for I assumed he could have escaped the volcano, but had gone back for his coins.

Now that I am old I understand coins are not the only thing people give undue importance to, when they should be attending to what really matters. And I cannot resist stating, as a garrulous old grouch,  that I fear the mainstream media is especially guilty of running straight towards a sort of  “volcano” for things that do not matter.

It is not merely that the media attempts to sensationalize the sad happenings at Fort McMurray as being the “worst ever” when obviously things have been worse elsewhere at other times. Nor is it that the media labors to belabor that forest fires are due to “Global Warming”, which is not only scientifically absurd, but tiresome.

What really bugs me is that they fail to see how lucky we are. We are surrounded with proof we should be grateful, but they think there is no money in that. The only way to report,  (they never quite come out and state, yet epitomize), is to whine and complain things have never been worse. It infects their entire attitude towards life:  The way to get ahead is to say things have never been worse.

There have been a few times I myself have been so full of pity for myself that I have actually been inclined towards sinking to that mainstream-media attitude. Not that I ever sink so low as they live every day. Heck, my worst depression probably looks like a snow-topped mountain, to them.

But last winter I did have a major operation, and as you wake from such trauma it is hard to be an optimist. And I will confess to you that, yes, I did feel sorry for myself. However, as I wallowed in that post-operative frame of mind I was handed a book. Apparently someone I do not know, but who reads this blog and felt I deserved a tip even though I don’t have a “tip jar,” felt compelled to send me a book.

I can barely recall the book. I read it in a sedated state. But the book certainly was not a sermon. Rather it was a tale of the Galveston Hurricane, full of lurid details. And as I read how those families suffered, I stopped feeling so sorry for myself. I understood that I myself was not even close to being as bad off as those people once were. In fact I was downright lucky.

I can not do justice to how important this is. This post is but an acorn, and the idea I trace is like an oak. But, in a nutshell, it boils down to, “We are fools to feel sorry for things we should feel lucky about.”

10 thoughts on “Fort McMurray Fire Vs Great Peshtigo Fire, 1871

    • Yes, “Isaac’s Storm” was the book.

      For some reason I assumed you were posting out of England, but England doesn’t get earthquakes. Are you from New Zealand?

      • New Zealand it is – Dunedin actually and if you look up worlds steepest street you will find pics of our house – white with lacework and a picket fence (old pics – roof has turned greyish blue now 🙂

      • Thanks. I’ll pay a virtual-visit when I get time to roam the web this evening. It is 5:30 AM here right now.

  1. On this graph of Fort Mac temperatures u can see the obvious catastrophic GLO-BULL warming (sarc)
    The boreal forests unfortunately burn regularly and it was much the same up north in the spring of 1980 only then the fires were mostly in northern Saskatchewan, south of Lake Athabasca and around Lac La Ronge. I was up there for several weeks and everything was burning until the rains came in May. On a positive note when working in areas that had burned 3 years earlier I was struck by how park like the forest was when it recovers as all the under brush is gone … it was quite striking. Same weather pattern back then too … at that time I was living in Ottawa and April in the east was a cool and rainy miserable mess with hardly any sun and the west was hot and dry with sunny days. I think I flew up to Uranium City on April 18th 1980.
    Cheers Caleb & again thanks for the post.

    • Dry spells do happen, even here in the east where they are rare, as I wrote. In the mid-1960’s we had a dry period where Boston was running out of water, and there was a lot of talk about new reservoirs. That was all forgotten when the rains returned. But if the exact same period of dryness returned, (I think it lasted four years, until the fall of 1966), you know who would get the blame. It would all be your fault, Stewart! You and your oil sands! (Never a word about how we forgot all about building new reservoirs, once it rained).

      When (and if) we get time we’ll have to check April 1980, and the Weather maps. I wonder if an El Nino was fading? (However the dry pattern can happen to you without an El Nino, I suspect).

  2. Boreal Forests are fire dependent. Fire is a necessary occurrence for keeping the forests in a healthy state. The problem here was largely due to the mismanagement of the forest lands, fire supression allows too much undergrowth to develop. Prohibitions on logging for firewood leads to the same build up of fuel. Wide (1/2 mile or more) fire breaks could have minimized the loss of homes. Great article here:

    • Yes, that article is good, as are many of the comments.

      I posted a comment there wondering if bleaching is a necessary occurrence for keeping coral in a healthy state. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if some reef critters haven’t adapted to such events.

      The problem is that we humans tend to look at certain scenes of devastation, and call them unnatural, when they are perfectly natural, even if they are hugely inconvenient to us.

      West of Albuquerque I-40 passes through miles and miles of a relatively recent lava flow. If the earth pulled that off again, and I-40 was cut, it would be hugely inconvenient for the USA, but not unnatural.

      Another natural event is for the mouth of the Mississippi River to shift a hundred miles east or west, when the delta gets so long it acts more like a dam than a channel. The Army Corp of Engineers is working like crazy to keep this from happening, but if it did it would be perfectly natural.

      I think the more shallow environmentalists leap to conclusions far too quickly, and create prohibitions that are fairly certain to activate the “Law Of Unintended Consequences”. It is wise to think more deeply, which is what I think conservationists do, as do wiser engineers, who know all about “Murphy’s Law”.

  3. I’m the guilty party that sent you ‘Isaac’s Storm’ I’m happy you enjoyed it, and I’m happy to see that you’re feeling a bit better.Looking forward to reading your blog for many years to come.

    • I thank you greatly. It was a great read and, as I said, it made me feel a lot less sorry for myself.

      One interesting sidebar to that book was how “Isaac” was so cock-sure he knew all about hurricanes, when in fact he knew diddle. I recall early on in the book he published something in a local paper assuring people “it can’t happen here,” which was not something that would have assisted any who wanted to build a sea wall.

      It was also interesting how his memory revised things, after the storm. I’ve seen my memory do the same things, but unfortunately I have kept a diary since 1962, and it tends to ruin some of my best embellishments, and remind me how I really behaved.

      I am lucky I wasn’t given as much authority and power as Isaac had, when I was as young as he was. It is one of those situations where I mutter, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

      It was also sad how the American weather bureau was so snobby and refused to listen to the Cuban weathermen, who knew more about hurricanes. Sadly racism was more rampant back then than it is now, (though in some places it may be making a comeback, thanks to the attitude of Jihadists).

      Much of the human nature described in the book applies to humans today. The primary difference was people back then were cock-sure there was no reason to be alarmed, and now people are cock-sure there is every reason to be alarmed. America was much more self-confident back then, I suppose.

      Once again, much thanks. I would have written you a thank-you note, but your address got lost in the chaos of that time. I was sort of hoping that, by mentioning the book in this post, I might get a rise out of you. Success! God bless you.

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