Remembering the 1871 Peshtigo Fire – the Worst Fire in North America


On the evening of October 8, 1871 the worst recorded forest fire in North American history raged through Northeastern Wisconsin and Upper Michigan, destroying millions of dollars worth of property and timberland, taking between 1,200 and 2,400 lives, and burning over one million acres of forest land.

Madison music artist, recorder, performer and environmental advocate Ken Longquist and his band were guests in the studio yesterday on WORT-FM radio’s “8:00 O’Clock Buzz”, hosted by Madison’s Tony Castañeda. Their visit to the radio station was made in recognition of the 144th year anniversary of the historic Peshtigo fire, which took so many human lives and undoubtedly countless wild animals as well. According to Longquist’s research of this historical event in Wisconsin’s history, the fire followed a period of prolonged and widespread drought and high temperatures combined with human carelessness. In those days, developers often set small fires as a way to clear forest stumps and land for farming and railroad construction. On the day of the Peshtigo fire, the fires that were set got out of control and the strong, cyclic winds escalated the fire to massive proportions. By the time the fire was over, 3 days later, more than 1,875 square miles or 1.2 million acres of forest land had burned to the ground. Twelve communities in the area were completely destroyed.

An accurate death toll has never been determined for the tragedy as local records were destroyed in the fire and no one had anticipated what was about to take place.  Much like today’s global warming-aided extreme weather, worldwide, linked to a 50 percent increase in the carbon dioxide concentration of the atmosphere and rising concentrations of other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, primarily from humans carelessly and knowingly burning huge quantities of fossil fuels; there have also been huge, deadly and costly catastrophic fires occurring in the western U.S. states the last few years. The Peshtigo fire was similarly caused by careless human activity – actions that were clearly dangerous to the people, animals and all the other things around them – much like humans burning fossil fuels, despite their seeing signs that earth’s climate has already changed around them and created considerable havoc, loss of life and property.

Listen to Ken and his band perform their new song “Peshtigo” live on radio (or via computer) on the 147th anniversary of the fire yesterday morning, October 8, 2015, at WORTFM Community Radio, Madison.


About Mike Neuman

Environmentalist; Father; Senior Citizen; Husband, School Crossing Guard; Green Bay Packer Fan; Wisconsin Badger Fan; Animal Lover; Humanitarian

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