The Great Peshtigo Fire of 1871 -- Was it a comet?
Analysis, p.3


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A more earthly cause is also the more likely. It was convection whirls, flinging flaming brands hundreds of feet ahead of the fire, which surely led to Williams's short-lived optimism. The fire marshal said as much in a letter to the Chicago Tribune published on November 17, 1871: "While we were working on the original fire, which was surrounded and under our control, the fearful gale which was raging at the time carried, not only sparks, but brands and pieces of boards on fire, the distance of two to four squares."

Even Waskin's theories concerning the Wisconsin fires appear to be unsound. He notes that during the Peshtigo blaze, a rain of red-hot sand accompanied the firestorm. Where, asks Waskin, did this sand come from? Although there was sand on the beaches, he maintains that these lay to the East, and the wind was blowing from the West and the South. He concludes that the sand may have come from a comet, as sand is one of its elements. But Waskin fails to note that beaches were not the only source of sand in Peshtigo, that at least some of the roads were apparently covered with it. He also fails to consider the power of convection whirls. Stephen J. Pyne, author of the cultural history Fire in America, vividly describes them: "The turbulence from the violent convection was awesome. Winds of 60-80 mph uprooted trees like match sticks; a 1,000 pound wagon was tossed like a tumbleweed. Papers were lofted by the winds from Michigan across Lake Huron to Canada. The peculiar physics of mass fire had multiplied its fury into a maelstrom of energy equivalent to the chain reaction of a thermonuclear bomb." The winds that could lift a wagon and uproot trees surely sucked up both beach and road sand into a hurricane of fire and hurled it upon the fleeing populace.

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