How weather played a factor in the Peshtigo Fire 150 years later


PESHTIGO, Wis. (WFRV) – 150 years…that’s how long it has been since the Great Peshtigo Fire occurred on the evening of October 8, 1871.

This fire was the deadliest in United States history in terms of loss of life. Other large fires struck Chicago and portions of Michigan, but the Great Chicago Fire gripped headlines while Peshtigo remained cut off from communications.

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Helen McNulty is a Museum Curator at the Peshtigo Fire Museum. She emphasizes, “Communication lines went down in Peshtigo and Peshtigo was gone in an hour and a half’s time. It was gone…it was gone. There was nothing left.”

The fast movement of flames were so violent at times residents compared it too tornadic like structures. Residents fled the fire into Peshtigo River in a desperate attempt to save their lives.

“They heard it coming in like the railroad trains…. like they said a tornado sounds like a deafening train….the trains were just coming up there then so….but that’s the way they explained the sound of it.”

The weather had a large impact in setting the conditions that became favorable for the fire.

Let’s start with the bigger picture. Back in 1871, weather reports were very sparse across the Midwest. Here are some precipitation totals in notable nearby locations for the month of September 1871.

Overall, it was a very dry month following a dry summer in 1871, with no one here picking up even an inch of rain. Smoke was even observed from smaller wildfires due to the dryness in the month prior at Fort Embarrass.

Now fast-forwarding to the reconstructed national weather map for October 8th that year, there was a large low-pressure system in the plains producing warm and gusty winds in Wisconsin which would end up spreading the raging Peshtigo fire.

The approximate area where places burned is shown here.  The exact death toll is unknown, according to the National Weather Service, an estimated 1200-2400 people died, with at least 800 coming from Peshtigo.

It has been long rumored that the fire crossed the Bay, but is there any truth to that?

McNulty says, “Conditions were just as dry in Door County as they were here…there were small fires you know popping up that the winds would take…It is very unlikely it would have crossed the Bay…those many miles.”

Other factors contributed to the fire, including the large amount of pine trees that enhanced the spread of the fires near Peshtigo. The town was largely built with wood, which did not help, and logging industries were nearby as well.

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