The Great Peshtigo Fire of 1871 -- Was it a comet?
Analysis, p. 2


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Waskin points out that during the course of the fire, buildings would suddenly burst into flame. Fire would first begin eating away at the rear of these structures; then the fronts would explode without warning. He argues that this was caused by sparks and burning debris falling on buildings and igniting the cometary gases inside. On the other hand, one contemporary writer suggested that this was caused by burning brands falling through the skylights of buildings, setting fire to their contents. Again, fire science indicates the more likely cause -- heat radiation. When a fire is burning in a portion of a building, all materials and surfaces that face the fire are heated by radiant heat. When the temperature of these surfaces reaches the ignition point of the material itself, it will burst into flame. Similarly, in large fires it is not uncommon for the radiant heat of a burning building to ignite adjacent buildings. Surely it was heat radiation and not cometary gases that caused these sudden eruptions of flame.

Fire Marshal Williams indicated at the inquiry that initially he felt that his men could stop the fire's progress just a few blocks from the O'Leary barn -- until St. Paul's Church, several blocks to the north, caught fire. Waskin contends that "what probably happened was that chunks of frozen gases broke away from the main body of Biela II and were heated to their gaseous states as they plunged through the atmosphere, fueling existing fires or igniting new ones."

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Cite as: Deana C. Hipke. The Great Peshtigo Fire of 1871. <>
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