Massive fire burns in Wisconsin

Massive fire burns in Wisconsin

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The most devastating fire in United States history burns in Wisconsin on October 8, 1871. Some 1,200 people lost their lives and 2 billion trees were consumed by flames. Despite the massive scale of the blaze, it was overshadowed by the Great Chicago Fire, which began later that night about 250 miles away.

Peshtigo, Wisconsin, was a company lumber and sawmill town owned by William Ogden that was home to what was then one of the largest wood-products factories in the United States. The summer of 1871 was particularly dry across the northern Midwest. Still, settlers continued to set fires, using the “slash and burn” method to create new farmland and, in the process, making the risk of forest fire substantial. In fact, the month before had seen significant fires burn from Canada to Iowa.

Peshtigo, like many Midwestern towns, was highly vulnerable to fire. Nearly every structure in town was a timber-framed building–prime fuel for a fire. In addition, the roads in and out of town were covered with saw dust and a key bridge was made of wood. This would allow a fire from outside the town to easily spread to Peshtigo and make escaping from a fire in the town difficult. On September 23, the town had stockpiled a large supply of water in case a nearby fire headed in Peshtigo’s direction. Still, they were not prepared for the size and speed of the October 8 blaze.

The blaze began at an unknown spot in the dense Wisconsin forest. It first spread to the small village of Sugar Bush, where every resident was killed. High winds then sent the 200-foot flames racing northeast toward the neighboring community of Peshtigo. Temperatures reached 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, causing trees to literally explode in the flames.

On October 8, the fire reached Peshtigo without warning. Two hundred people died in a single tavern. Others fled to a nearby river, where several people died from drowning. Three people who sought refuge in a water tank boiled to death when the fire heated the tank. A mass grave of nearly 350 people was established because extensive burns made it impossible to identify the bodies.

Despite the fact that this was the worst fire in American history, newspaper headlines on subsequent days were dominated by the story of another devastating, though smaller, blaze: the Great Chicago Fire. Another fire in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula that consumed 2 million acres was an even smaller footnote in the next day’s papers.

The 1973 Fire, National Personnel Records Center

On July 12, 1973, a disastrous fire at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) destroyed approximately 16-18 million Official Military Personnel Files (OMPF). The records affected:

Branch Personnel and Period Affected Estimated Loss
Army Personnel discharged November 1, 1912 to January 1, 1960 80%
Air Force Personnel discharged September 25, 1947 to January 1, 1964
(with names alphabetically after Hubbard, James E.)

No duplicate copies of these records were ever maintained, nor were microfilm copies produced. Neither were any indexes created prior to the fire. In addition, millions of documents had been lent to the Department of Veterans Affairs before the fire occurred. Therefore, a complete listing of the records that were lost is not available. However, in the years following the fire, the NPRC collected numerous series of records (referred to as Auxiliary Records) that are used to reconstruct basic service information.

The Fire:

Shortly after midnight, on July 12, 1973, a fire was reported at the NPRC's military personnel records building at 9700 Page Boulevard in St. Louis, MO. Firefighters arrived on the scene only 4 minutes and 20 seconds after the first alarm sounded and entered the building. While they were able to reach the burning sixth floor, the heat and the smoke forced the firefighters to withdraw at 3:15am. In order to combat and contain the flames, firefighters were forced to pour great quantities of water onto the exterior of the building and inside through broken windows. The fire burned out of control for 22 hours it took two days before firefighters were able to re-enter the building. The blaze was so intense that local Overland residents had to remain indoors, due to the heavy acrid smoke. It was not until July 16, nearly four and a half days after the first reports, that the local fire department called the fire officially out.

During the long ordeal, firefighters faced severe problems due to insufficient water pressure. Exacerbating the situation, one of the department's pumper trucks broke down after 40 hours of continuous operation. Numerous times, the fire threatened to spread down to the other floors but firefighters were successful in halting its advance. In all, it took the participation of 42 fire districts to combat the disastrous blaze. Due to the extensive damages, investigators were never able to determine the source of the fire.

The Aftermath:

The National Archives focused its immediate attention on salvaging as much as possible and quickly resuming operations at the Page facility. Even before the final flames were out, staff at the NPRC had begun work towards these efforts. All requests and records shipments from other government agencies were temporarily halted, and certain vital records were removed from the burning building for safekeeping. These included the NPRC's operating records, a computer index for a major portion of the NPRC's holdings, and more than 100,000 reels of morning reports for the Army (1912-1959) and Air Force (1947-1959). The latter proved especially important in the days following, as NPRC's officials determined that the fire damage had been worst among the Army and Air Force records for this same time period. As such, on July 23, 1973, the Government issued a Federal Property Management Regulations Bulletin (FPMR B-39) halting Federal agencies from disposing of records that might be useful in documenting military service. Such records have proved vital in efforts to reconstruct basic service information for requestors.

On July 23, the NPRC awarded a construction contract to clear and remove the remains from the ruined sixth floor. That same day, employees, previously on administrative leave, returned to work to assist in recovery efforts and resume reference services. The removal and salvage of water and fire damaged records from the building was the most important priority, and such efforts were overseen by a specially appointed project manager. Their work led to the recovery of approximately 6.5 million burned and water damaged records.

Following the fire, the most immediate concern in the center revolved around water. In order to combat the blaze, firefighters had been forced to pour millions of gallons of water into the building. To stop sporadic rekindling of fire, firefighters continued spraying water on the building until late July. In addition, broken water lines continued to flood the building until they could be capped. Water damage was heaviest on the 5th floor but was spread throughout the building. Standing water, combined with the high temperatures and humidity of a typical St. Louis summer, created a situation ripe for mold growth. As paper is highly susceptible to mold, officials sprayed thymol throughout the building to control any outbreak.

Controlling the spread of mold was one concern but, so too, was the issue of how to dry the millions of water-soaked records. Initially, NPRC staffers shipped these water-damaged records in plastic milk crates to a temporary facility at the civilian records center on Winnebago, where hastily constructed drying racks had been assembled from spare shelving. When it was discovered that McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Corporation in St. Louis had vacuum-drying facilities, the NPRC diverted its water damaged records there for treatment. The vacuum-dry process took place in a chamber that had previously been utilized to simulate temperature and pressure conditions for the Mercury and Gemini space missions. The chamber was large enough to accommodate approximately 2,000 plastic milk cartons of water and fire damaged records. Once inside, McDonnell Douglas technicians lowered the air in the chamber to the freezing point and then filled the room with hot dry air, which squeezed out the water molecules. For each chamber load, they were able to extract approximately 8 pounds of water per container - the equivalent of nearly 8 total tons of water for each session. In addition to utilizing two more supplemental drying chambers at McDonnell Douglas, the NPRC also sent records to a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) facility in Ohio for drying.

Towards Reconstruction:

As part of the reconstruction effort, the NPRC established a "B" registry file (or Burned File) to index the 6.5 million recovered records. So too, the NPRC established a separate temperature controlled "B" file area to protect and safeguard the damaged records. Later, in April 1974, the NPRC established the "R" registry file (or Reconstructed File) to further assist with reconstruction efforts. Since then, staffers have placed all newly reconstructed records into the "R" registry file and stored them in an area separate from the "B," or burned, files.

In the months following the fire, the NPRC initiated several new records recovery and reconstruction efforts, including the establishment of a new branch to deal with damaged records issues. As many military personnel records had been partially or completely destroyed by the fire, the new branch's central mission was to reconstruct records for those requesting service information from the NPRC. While some staffers sought to recover such information from documents and alternate sources outside of the NPRC, others searched through the center's organizational files for records to supplement the destroyed OMPFs.

These alternate sources have played a vital role in the NPRC's efforts to reconstruct service files. Some of the more important records used by the NPRC to supplement damage files include: Veterans Administration (VA) claims files, individual state records, Multiple Name Pay Vouchers (MPV) from the Adjutant General's Office, Selective Service System (SSS) registration records, pay records from the Government Accounting Office (GAO), as well as medical records from military hospitals, entrance and separation x-rays and organizational records. Many work hours were spent making these sources usable. Efforts included: the transfer of records to the NPRC, screening projects and securing access to VA computer records.

In terms of loss to the cultural heritage of our nation, the 1973 NPRC Fire was an unparalleled disaster. In the aftermath of the blaze, recovery and reconstruction effort took place at an unprecedented level. Thanks to such recovery efforts and the use of alternate sources to reconstruct files, today's NPRC is able to continue its primary mission of serving our country's military and civil servants.

Learn more about burned records and how the NPRC's Preservation Laboratory works to treat and make these damaged files accessible.

This page was last reviewed on January 4, 2019.
Contact us with questions or comments.

Peshtigo Fire

On the night of Oct. 8-9, 1871, this fire destroyed in two hours a swath of forest 10 miles wide and 40 miles long and obliterated the towns of Peshtigo and Brussels, killing about 1,500 people.

In all, the fire burned more than 280,000 acres in Oconto, Marinette, Shawano, Brown, Kewaunee, Door, Manitowoc and Outagamie counties. The human toll was 1,152 known dead and another 350 believed dead. Another 1,500 were seriously injured and at least 3,000 made homeless. The property loss was estimated conservatively at $5,000,000 and this did not include 2,000,000 valuable trees and saplings and scores of animals.

Worst hit was the town of Peshtigo and the surrounding territory. The area had been undergoing an unparalleled drought. The citizens of Peshtigo had become used to the smell of ashes and thought nothing amiss when they retired on the night of October 8, 1871. Suddenly "all hell rode into town on the back of a wind." Many rushed toward the river, some took refuge in basements. 75 persons who remained in a boarding house perished. A considerable portion of the survivors were huddled in a low, marshy piece of ground on the east side of the river. The number of dead in the blaze in the town of Peshtigo has been variously estimated at from 500 to 800. Only two buildings still stood after the fire, and the newspapers of the day wondered how some persons came through the disaster while others were burned to ashes within ten feet of them, or how the heavy iron fire engine could be melted without scorching the paint on wood two feet away. The fire also threatened the towns of Menominee, Mich., and Marinette, Wis., and licked at the outskirts of Green Bay. In Door County, 128 lives were lost.

View articles in the Wisconsin Magazine of History, vol. 11 no. 1 (1927): 96-106. The most vivid personal account is that of Rev. Peter Pernin, who survived the blaze the best edition is that in the Wisconsin Magazine of History, vol 54 no. 4 (1971): 246-272. Other eyewitness accounts are available at our digital collection, Turning Points in Wisconsin History.

Wyman, Mark. The Wisconsin Frontier (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998) WHS library reference file prepared by Margaret Gleason sources cited above.

The Great Midwest Wildfires of 1871

From Sunday, October 8 through Tuesday, October 10, 1871 wildfires claimed thousands of lives and destroyed millions of acres across the Upper Midwest. The most famous fire struck Chicago, and claimed about 300 lives while destroying over three square miles of the city, including more than 17,000 buildings. For many years, the cause of the fire was attributed to a cow housed in a barn on 137 DeKoven Street. The cow, owned by Mrs. O&rsquoLeary, purportedly knocked over a lantern that set off the blaze. A reporter later admitted to fabricating the story, but it continues to endure in popular culture. The actual cause of the fire was never determined, but weather conditions across the entire region during the summer and fall of 1871 produced conditions conducive to large, rapidly-spreading fires should one ignite. Large wildfires also struck several areas in Michigan, with Holland, Port Huron, and Manistee seeing the most significant damage and loss of life. Although the exact death toll from the Michigan fires is unknown, it likely claimed in excess of 500 lives. However, the most costly fire in terms of loss of life occurred in and around Peshtigo, Wisconsin, and remains to this day as the deadliest fire in American History.

Map showing the burnt area of the Peshtigo fire.
Image courtesy of

Figure 1: Peshtigo after the fire (Pernin 1999)

Fire reached Peshtigo during the evening of Sunday, October 8, 1871. By the time the fire ended, it had consumed 1.5 million acres, and an estimated 1,200-2,400 lives, including approximately 800 in Peshtigo. Only one building in the town survived the fire (Figure 1). What we know of the fire is primarily taken from the first-hand account of Reverend Peter Pernin. His account details a number of personal stories from those who were present in Peshtigo during the fire, and many of those personal stories are displayed alongside graves in the cemetery adjacent to the Peshtigo Fire Museum. One such story details the experience of the Kelly family (Figure 2):

"Terance Kelly, his wife, and four children lived in the upper Sugar Bush. When the fire came with the terrible wind and smoke, the family became separated. Voices could not be heard above the roar of the fire. Mr. Kelly had a child in his arms, as did Mrs. Kelly. The other two children clung to each other. In search for safety, each group lost track of the others. The next day, Mr. Kelly and a child were found dead nearly a mile from his farm. The mother and another child were safe. The other children, a boy and a girl, five, were found sleeping in each others arms near the farm. The house, barn, and all the outbuildings had burned to the ground."

Figure 2: Gravestone and story of the Kelly Family at the Peshtigo
Cemetery. Photo by Thomas Hultquist.

Click for larger image

Figure 3

Figure 4

Figure 5
The fire in Peshtigo resulted from a number of factors, including prolonged drought, logging and clearing of land for agriculture, local industry, ignorance and indifference of the population, and ultimately a strong autumn storm system occurring in the presence of conditions supportive of a large, rapidly-spreading fire. In order to better understand the large-scale weather conditions leading up to the fire, data from the 20th Century Reanalysis (which covers the period from 1871-present) was analyzed. A large upper-level ridge was present across the region from July through September (Figures 3 and 4), which would have set the stage for warm and potentially dry weather. Reanalysis of 2 m temperatures from July through September indicates above-normal temperatures were present from the central Plains into the upper Midwest (Figure 5).

Click for larger image: Figures 6, 7, 8

Click for larger image: Figures 9, 10, 11

The fires of October 8-10, 1871 helped serve as a wake-up call to many about the land use practices of the time. Timber from cleared land was discarded without regard to its potential to fuel wildfires. The subsequent 144 years has seen an evolution in how to mitigate wildfire potential with varying degrees of success, but awareness of the issue has dramatically increased. Weather support has become an integral part of fire operations, for both planned burns and wildfires. The National Weather Service has Incident Meteorologists trained in providing remote and onsite support to firefighters who battle wildfires across the United States, and have also supported operations internationally. Although wildfires will always occur and continue to claim lives and property, improvements in weather information, land management, and general awareness of the danger of wildfires helps ensure tragedies of the scale that occurred in early October 1871 will not be repeated.

Verso: Fire at idled mill caused by lightning

Wisconsin Rapids, Wis. (WSAW) - A spokesman from Verso Corporation said the cause of a fire Tuesday night at the Wisconsin Rapids mill appears to have been caused by lightning.

The company released a statement Wednesday afternoon saying around 7:30 p.m. lightning appeared to have struck the scrubber stack at the idled mill. “There were no employee injuries, and damage was limited to a non-operating area of the mill. We’re incredibly thankful to our on-site team’s professionalism and the Wisconsin Rapids Fire Department for their swift response.”

The Wisconsin Rapids Fire Department said around 60 firefighters responded to the scene.

Wisconsin Rapids Deputy Fire Chief Todd Eckes said fire and heat compromised the stack causing a collapse, which then started subsequent fires in and around the digester tower.

One firefighter was treated and released on the scene for symptoms of heat exhaustion.

The fire was under control at approximately 9:45 p.m.

Eckes said damage assessment is ongoing and it appears the damage was limited to the stack area in the number 1 digester building. The cause is undetermined at this time.

Crews from Port Edwards Fire, Grand Rapids Fire, Biron Fire, Nekoosa Fire, Vesper Fire, Rudolph Fire, and the Wisconsin Rapids Police Department and Saratoga First Responders. A former employee of the mill says the fire was in the Kraft Mill where wood chips were cooked into pulp.

The paper mill was opened in 1904. It was Wisconsin Rapids’ largest employer until it was shut down in the summer of 2020. Two lawmakers were working on a bill to used federal funds to help a potential buyer purchase the facility.

Verdict No. 6 – $2.2 Billion in Diluted Cancer Drug Case

A jury in Kansas City awarded $2.2 billion in damages to a cancer patient after a pharmacistpled guilty to watering down chemotherapy drugs provided to patients in a diabolical scheme to increase profits.

The verdict was largely symbolic since most of the assets of the sleazy pharmacist were seized by the federal government in order to pay for a victims’ fund. The Kansas City jury awarded the plaintiff $578,881 in lost wages and medical expenses. The remainder of the multi-billion dollar verdict was punitive damages.

6. Chicago 1871

Probably few infernos have been as famous as the one that ravaged much of Chicago in October, 1871, leaving more that 17,000 structures burned and 90,000 people homeless. Fortunately, it spread slowly enough that fewer than 300 died in the flames, but that’s of little consolation to those who were forced to face a cold Midwestern winter without shelter as a result. While there is no doubt the fire started in a barn on the O’Leary property at 137 DeKoven Street, there is no evidence it was caused by the poor woman’s cow kicking over a lantern. (That story was made up newspaper reporter who later admitted he did so because he thought it made for more “colorful” copy. Modern researchers instead have come up with a hypothesis that it may have actually been started by a transient smoking in the barn and inadvertently setting the hay inside alight.) In any case, like the London fire of 1666, the fire paved the way for a new and improved Chicago to rise from the ashes that would within a few short decades make it the great metropolis it is today. It also led to much needed firefighting reforms that would one day make Chicago’s fire department one of the best in the country and be a template by which other large city fire departments would base their own procedures. Not bad work for one bad bovine.

Incident Information

Basic Information

Current as of
Incident TypeWildfire
Date of OriginSunday August 16th, 2020 approx. 11:18 AM
LocationFire started 2 miles south of Jawbone Flats.
Incident CommanderJonah Gladney
Coordinates44.821 latitude, -122.188 longitude

Current Situation

Timber (Litter and Understory)

Fuel types consist of mixed conifer, grass and shrub fields with numerous snags and heavy dead and down. Private lands have various aged conifer plantations, NFS lands and upper elevations transition to mature Douglas fir with significant snag component. Live fuels are dormant, grasses are cured, and both may contribute to fire intensity and spread. Previous management and multiple ownerships contribute to many fuel type changes, including residual activity fuels (slash). BOW spot is in heavy down fuels from previous fire event, not spreading into the green areas readily.


Suppression repair work will continue.

12 hours: Very Isolated heat and smoke in the interior with some smoldering. Some smoke may be visible in isolated burning stumps, large down logs, and snags.

24 hours: Very Isolated heat and smoke in the interior with some smoldering. Some smoke may be visible in isolated burning stumps, large down logs, and snags.

Transfer of command to a type 3 organization took place on 10/15/2020 at 7 am.

Wildfire Chemistry

Fire needs fuel, oxygen, and heat to ignite and spread. Wherever forests grow, the fuel for forest fires is provided mainly by continued biomass production along with the resulting fuel load of that vegetative growth. Oxygen is created in abundance by the photosynthesizing process of living green organisms so it is all around us in the air. All that is needed then is a source of heat to provide the exact chemistry combinations for a flame.

When these natural combustibles (in the form of wood, leaves, brush) reach 572º, gas in the steam given off reacts with oxygen to reach its flash point with a burst of flame. This flame then preheats surrounding fuels. In turn, other fuels heat up and the fire grows and spreads. If this spreading process is not controlled, you have a wildfire or uncontrolled forest fire.

Depending on the geographic condition of the site and the vegetative fuels present, you might call these brush fires, forest fires, sage field fires, grass fires, woods fires, peat fires, bush fires, wildland fires, or veld fires.

ANN ARBOR—Flames are ravaging the forests and prairies of the West, but during the autumn of 1871, fire swept across part of eastern Michigan laying claim to life, property and natural resources, primarily in Sanilac, Huron and Tuscola counties.

“A sky of flame, of smoke a heavenful, the earth a mass of burning coals, the mighty trees, all works of man between and living things trembling as a child before a demon in the gale,” is how the Michigan fire of 1871 was described in a history of Sanilac County. “To those who have seen, the picture needs no painting.”

Small fires that broke out gradually ran together drawing dry air from inland rather than moist air from over the lakes. Wind carried chips and fragments, starting new fires. Big brush piles left by logging practices of the time added to the ferocity of the fires.

“The tree crowns left on the ground by logging operations created an enormous fuel for the fires,” said Burton Barnes of the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment. “The pine needles and stems accumulated on the ground contained heavy amounts of resin and, combined with leaves and other organic matter, burned very hot. These were not like the fires we see today, that burn hottest in the air. These fires burned hottest on the ground.”

On Sunday, Oct. 8, 1871, the fire started blowing, burning, killing and devouring everything in its path. In some communities people went to bed at night, only to be aroused at midnight by the fearful cry of “Fire!” They watched their homes, farms, livestock and belongings vanish into smoke and ashes. Some were able to save themselves. “Others, choked with flame and smoke, left only their charred bones to tell their friends where and how they died,” said one report. Thousands of acres of valuable pine were gone in a matter of hours.

The firestorm forced people of Forestville onto the beach or into the water. Some took refuge in boats, covering themselves with wet blankets. In Huron County, families tried to outrace the fire. One family climbed into a wagon, covered themselves with wet blankets and headed for a mill race a half-mile away, arriving just before the wagon caught fire. The family jumped into the race, covering themselves with more wet blankets.

In just a half-hour, Forestville was in ruins. At White Rock people plunged into the lake, but the lake was so rough that women and children were thrown back on the beach. They risked death by drowning in order be saved from death by fire. Some dug holes in the ground or a bank and managed to survive by crawling into the shelter. Losses included crops, houses, businesses, livestock, grain, hay, bridges and crossings in swamps.

“It is estimated that the dwellings, household goods, clothing, winter’s provisions and supplies for stock of from 4,000 to 5,000 people were destroyed and with the mills the means to supply food for these,” one account reported.

Yet, with all its magnitude and intensity, the fire of 1871 did not consume all the timber, but in most places only deadened the green timber and prepared the way for a more terrible calamity 10 years later. The population was denser on Sept. 5, 1881, when a firestorm traveled across Sanilac County in four hours, leaving 150 people dead and hundreds injured. To save themselves, some residents jumped into wells, remaining there for up to five hours before crawling out. Others never made it out.

After the fire of 1881 more than 14,000 people were made dependent on public aid, and 1,480 barns, 1,521 dwellings and 51 schools were destroyed. The fire was directly responsible for at least 300 deaths. Damage in 1881 was estimated to be in excess of dollar value of that time.

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  4. Arundel

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