"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." -Excerpt from "The Great Peshtigo Fire: An Eyewitness Account 2nd edition," by Reverend Peter Pernin.
On October 8, 1871, at about the same hour, two devastating fires started, one in rural Peshtigo, Wisconsin, the other in downtown Chicago. Both fires remain today among the worst natural disasters to befall the Midwest. In fact, no forest fire since the Peshtigo disaster has taken more lives; and the Chicago fire remains the most destructive metropolitan blaze in the nation's history, having caused some $200,000,000 in property damage and all but obliterating the city's core.
While both fires were devastating, many newspapers around the country concentrated their coverage on the Chicago catastrophe, which was, in William Haygood's words in his introduction to The Great Peshtigo Fire, "by its very nature more spectacular, more universally publicized, and more often revived in print."
Though Reverend Peter Pernin - the parish priest for Peshtigo and nearby Marinette, whose churches burned to the ground - published his account in 1874, Haygood continues, "Only since the 1970s [when the Society published the first edition of The Great Peshtigo Fire] have the occurrences of that dreadful night been accorded their proper place in the history of American disasters." No writer has yet to equal in vividness, imagery, or sheer drama the contemporary account written by Father Peter Pernin.
To this new edition the Society Press is pleased to add a foreword by Stephen J. Pyne, professor at Arizona State University in Tempe, author of numerous books on wildland fire, and the foremost historian of fire whom governments the world over consult for advice about environmental issues related to fire.
Pyne's foreword not only places the Peshtigo Fire into a global historical perspective, but it also extracts enduring meaning from the tragedy and enormous loss of life: "The conflagration of October 8, 1871, illustrated a formula for forest fire disaster that has proved timeless. Its ravages contributed to a philosophy of conservation that has informed fire programs over the last century. "What happened in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, on October 8, 1871, was part of a ring of fire that continues to ripple around the globe.
Analogous flames occur today. Substitute Xilinji and Ma Lin in Manchuria for Hinckley and Cloquet in Minnesota, and you have the Great Black Dragon fire that gutted three million acres in 1987 in Manchuria, devoured several rail-and-logging communities, killed hundreds, and left 33,706 homeless."
64 pp, illustrated, maps