Monday, June 29, 2015

Conspiracy Monday: What Caused the Peshtigo Fire?

Near Tobinsville, Mary protected them

Question: What was the worst fire--in terms of fatalities--in American history?

Answer: The Peshtigo Fire of 1871. Anywhere from 1,000 to 2,500 human beings perished.

Ask your otherwise well-educated friends that question. I guarantee that most will not know the answer, and many of them will not even have heard of the answer.

Why is that? Well, among other things it occurred on October 8th, 1871, the same day as the most famous fire in American history, the Great Chicago Fire (estimated fatalities: 250). And it happened only a few hundred miles away.

Isn't that weird?

It gets weirder.

The Peshtigo Fire raged on both sides of Green Bay in North-East Wisconsin. So, the folk-wisdom is that it jumped the bay. But fires jump rivers. They don't jump bays. So now we have three of the worst fires in American history happening in close proximity but starting "independently".

And it gets even weirder.

On that same day occurred the Great Michigan Fire, burning in at least two independent sites. Almost as many died in that one as the Great Chicago Fire.

So, we now have at least five "independent" fires--many of the worst fires in American history--in the same general area in the same day.

This is why we call it "Conspiracy Monday".

Before proceeding, here's a little bit more about the Peshtigo Fire:

It ended up affecting a heavily forested area twice the size of Rhode Island. The worst hit location was the town of Peshtigo, but other communities were also impacted. It completely annihilated many of them. The reason for the range in fatality estimates is that entire villages were wiped out. All records were destroyed. And there weren't enough survivors in some areas to report on who may have died.

The firestorm overtook forest settlements without warning. Houses and other structures were hurled up, as in a cyclone. Many sought refuge in the Peshtigo river and drowned, or froze in the frigid (it's Northern Wisconsin) waters, or were nevertheless vanquished by burning debris.

Many survivors reported that they thought it was the end of the world.

Here's a fascinating Catholic side note:

The southern part of the Peshtigo Fire burned, among other things, around a chapel that was the site of the only officially confirmed Marian apparition in the United States. It had occurred twelve years earlier in 1859. Terrified residents sought refuge on the chapel grounds. Many brought their animals. When the disaster was over, all had survived. The chapel and its property had been untouched--though the fire had come up to and singed the fence--while outside it, the surrounding country had been reduced to smoking ash. Today, it's called the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help. People make pilgrimages to it.

What caused these fires?

Well, other than in Chicago, the sites were logging areas. Small fires had been simmering throughout the summer. On that October day the temperature and wind conditions along the Great Lakes were extremely conducive to fires.

But still. Five of the worst fires ever on the same day?

Some think aliens did it. I'll ignore that one.

At the time, there were theories that the Great Chicago Fire was set by the Ku Klux Klan, or by disgruntled traveling salesmen. Cute. But I didn't know members of either group could move that fast.

Here's the best revisionist theory (at least on the surface):

All the fires were ignited by fragments of a meteor or a comet.

Not only does this have (on the surface) plausibility. It also accounts for numerous reports of the Great Chicago Fire "spreading" in ways that defy the typical trajectory of fires. Perhaps the city was hit by multiple fragments.

Sorry, Mrs. O'Leary's cow.

But there are two problems with this theory:

First, no one anywhere reported seeing a meteor or comet streaking across the sky. Nor were there any impact reports. None.

Second, meteors or comet fragments don't cause fires--or at least there is no evidence that they ever have. Among other things, comet fragments--if they make it through the atmosphere--would be made of ice, or at least freezing. Now, a large impact, say, of a rock a few hundred yards wide, might conceivably start the odd fire. But for an impact that huge, an odd fire would be the least of anyone's worries.

Based on the evidence, or lack of it, I reject the meteor or comet theory.

My money is on a confluence of extreme weather conditions, precisely conducive to the spread of fires.

But still. All on the same day?

What do you think?

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