The subject of West Coast wildfires arose in last night's vice presidential debate, with both Kamala Harris and Mike Pence suggesting that their opponents' political party is at least tangentially to blame. Not that human beings are blameless, but forest fires have bedeviled mankind for many millennia, including here in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
If you ask Americans to name the worst fire in U.S. history, chances are they will cite the Great Chicago Fire that began burning through the Windy City 149 years ago today. Although that certainly was a devastating event, it wasn't even the deadliest fire in that part of the country on this date.
That grim distinction belongs to the Peshtigo Fire, a conflagration I wrote about once before in this space. It was named after the Wisconsin lumber village it obliterated, along with half the town's population. Some 250 people died in Chicago. The Oct. 8, 1871, Peshtigo Fire, which ignited in the remote Wisconsin woodlands, killed eight or nine times as many, 800 of them in Peshtigo alone.
The exact time and place where the Peshtigo Fire was first sparked isn't known, but the underlying cause has always been understood: a rare year-long drought in northern Wisconsin that left an ominous pall over the north woods -- until the inevitable happened.
Americans spoke of changes in the weather in those days, not "climate change," but what the lumberjacks, pioneers, and townspeople living and working in the forest towns west of Lake Michigan all knew is that the woods were very, very parched.
It had snowed little the winter before. The spring of 1871 did not produce the promised wet season. The summer was exceedingly dry. A heavy rainfall came on July 8, but it didn't last, and the arid land soaked it up immediately. It didn't rain again until Sept. 5, and only lightly. Everyone was on edge.
Towns such as Sugar Bush, Brussels, Birch Creek and Peshtigo were nestled among billions of trees -- and everyone who lived there knew that trees could burn. The swamps had dried up, and in some places drinking water was an issue. Railroad crews cutting trees and laying track north of Peshtigo had walked off the job. Small fires were being put out every day. The residents knew they needed rain. Instead they got wind, and fire -- and then a combination of the two.
Even 149 years later the descriptions of it are terrifying.
The Rev. Peter Pernin, a survivor who wrote a firsthand account published by the Wisconsin Historical Society, recalled that residents heard the fire before they saw it. Then, the setting sun that night was replaced by the glow of the coming blaze.
"The menacing crimson reflection on the western sky was rapidly increasing in size and in intensity; in the midst of the unnatural calm and silence reigning around, [came] the strange and terrible noise of fire, strange and unknown thunderous voice of nature," he wrote. "The wind was forerunner of the tempest, increasing in violence, sweeping planks, gate and fencing away into space."
Everyone who survived it, and those who later wrote about it, expressed awe at the physical forces of the wind, exacerbated by a cold front that moved in, producing a fire tornado.
"A firestorm is called nature's nuclear explosion," wrote Denise Gess and William Lutz, authors of a book on the Peshtigo Fire. "Here's a wall of flame, a mile high, five miles wide, traveling 90 to 100 miles per hour, hotter than a crematorium, turning sand to glass."
The town of Sugar Bush was simply obliterated, with no survivors. By 10 p.m., residents in Peshtigo couldn't breathe the air. Trees exploded while homes, horses, and people caught fire. One group of residents found safety in the only remaining marshy piece of ground on the east side of the Peshtigo River.
The morning of Oct. 9, 1871, was eerily quiet. Peshtigo and several other towns were destroyed, lumber camps in a swath of forest 10 miles wide and 40 miles long were incinerated, with the names of their inhabitants forever lost to history.
Because the only telegraph office in the region had burned up, news of the disaster took days to filter out of Wisconsin. By then, the world was transfixed by the Chicago fire. It wasn't just itinerant lumberjacks and their families whose stories disappeared into the mists of history, it was the Peshtigo Fire itself.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.