The October 8, 1871 Peshtigo Fire in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, was a firestorm which caused the most deaths by fire in United States history, killing as many as 1,500. Occurring on the same day as the more infamous Great Chicago Fire, the Peshtigo Fire is mostly forgotten. On the same day as the Peshtigo and Chicago fires, the cities of Holland and Manistee, Michigan, across Lake Michigan, also burned, and the same fate befell Port Huron at the southern end of Lake Huron.
On the day of the fire, a cold front moved in from the west, bringing strong winds that fanned smaller fires and escalated them to massive proportions. By the time it was over, 1,875 square miles (4,860 km² or 1.2 million acres) of forest had been consumed, an area approximately twice the size of Rhode Island. Some sources list 1.5 million acres (6,100 km²) burned. Twelve communities were destroyed. An accurate death toll has never been determined since local population records were destroyed in the fire. Between 1,200 and 2,500 people are thought to have lost their lives. The 1873 Report to the Wisconsin Legislature listed 1,182 names of deceased or missing residents. Peshtigo had an estimated 1,700 residents before the fire. More than 350 bodies were buried in a mass grave, primarily because so many had died that no one remained alive who could identify many of them.
The fire was so intense it jumped several miles over the waters of Green Bay and burned parts of the Door Peninsula, as well as jumping the Peshtigo River itself to burn on both sides of the inlet town. Surviving witnesses reported that the firestorm generated a tornado that threw rail cars and houses into the air. Many of the survivors of the firestorm escaped the flames by immersing themselves in the Peshtigo River, wells, or other nearby bodies of water. Some drowned while others succumbed to hypothermia in the frigid river. The Green Island Light was kept lit by day due to the obscuring smoke, but the three-masted schooner George L. Newman was wrecked offshore; the crew was fortunately rescued without loss.
One speculation, first suggested in 1883, is that the occurrence of the Peshtigo and Chicago fires on the same day was not just a coincidence, but that both fires (and other major, simultaneous fires in Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin) were caused by the impact of fragments from Comet Biela. This theory was revived in a 1985 book and investigated in a 2004 paper to the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.What a coincidence: Draconid Meteor showers are tonight 7pm to midnight.