Wednesday, April 18, 2012

"The sky was brass. The earth was ashes."

Whenever I'm feeling glum about the way things are going, I turn to a certain form of therapy that's pretty damned effective: nonfiction accounts of trying times or tragic events in history. It's a surefire way of ending a personal pity party.

Here's what I learned during my most recent adjustment of perspective.

On the night of October 8, 1871, Chicago burned and some 250 people perished. But . . . as spectacular as the Great Chicago Fire was, it paled beside the inferno taking place, simultaneously, just over 200 miles to the north -- a large slice of hell that became the most destructive fire in U.S. history and the nation's third worst natural-disaster of any kind.

Bad enough the two arms of this conflagration devoured well over a million acres of white-pine and hardwood forests, as well as the farms and settlements that had been carved from those forests, and left behind a colorless wasteland. But in the vicinity of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, the fire became a fire storm -- its own superheated weather system, complete with tornadoes -- that made the earth resemble the surface of the sun.

The blaze was so intense it cracked boulders, melted metal, and spun sand into glass. It lifted at least one house off its foundation and caused it to explode in midair. Firebrands shot from the trees. Fireballs fell from the sky. Sheets and waves of fire canopied the land. Buildings and bodies went up like torches, instantly engulfed in flames.  

On both sides of the bay, people were suffocated or charred beyond recognition. Countless victims were incinerated down to small piles of ash. (One father could only identify his son's remains through a pocket knife sticking up from a mound of white powder.) Whole families were wiped out. The town of Peshtigo was annihilated. An entire ecosystem went up in smoke.

In other words, the fires that roared up both sides of Green Bay were nothing short of apocalyptic.

Estimates of fatalities range from 1,200 to 2,500. The Peshtigo River likely kept the death toll from exceeding 3,000. Clogged as it was with people, livestock, and burning logs, the river nevertheless provided the only refuge for the town's inhabitants. They endured it, if they could, for five eternal hours.

Help did not come quickly to stricken areas. Simply getting the word out was difficult. Telegraph lines had been destroyed and roads had been rendered impassable by fallen timber. Wagons had been consumed by flames and draft animals killed or crippled.

The suffering of the survivors was incalculable. Most were burned, or impaired by smoke inhalation. When the worst of the fire had passed, autumn's chill immediately returned. There was no food, no shelter, no adequate clothing to be had. And there was certainly no medical aid. In outlying areas, even water was impossible to find. Therefore, many people who'd made it through the fires subsequently died from their injuries or from starvation or renal failure. Months later, bodies were still being discovered in the scorched woods.

Slowly, Peshtigo rebuilt itself. So did the rest of the devastated region. In fact, when I was a girl, I spent part of each summer in the fire zone. There's a town just north of the city of Green Bay called Little Suamico (you can see its dot on the map above). My aunt and uncle had a primitive cottage up there, and it was my parents' vacation destination for many, many years. Little did I know as I gallivanted around those 40 acres that the most horrific fire in American history had raged over that very same patch of ground.

Right now, I'm not too inclined to complain about much of anything. ;-)


Chris said...

Yikes. It's impossible for me to imagine a fire of that magnitude. I saw (and fought) some fortunately much smaller forest fires one summer with the Forest Service in the Black Hills and they were plenty big enough for me.

K. Z. Snow said...

I can't wrap my mind around it, Chris. (And how incredible you had the guts to fight fires with the Forest Service!) I've read two books on the Peshtigo Fire, and the mettle of those people, like that of all pioneers and empire builders, is just awe-inspiring.

We've really gotten soft, haven't we?

Now I'm reading about the Johnstown Flood. I should feel good and grateful after this. :)

Chris said...

They weren't scary out of control fires, fortunately! :)

Grateful and checking the emergency supplies, just in case? :)

K. Z. Snow said...

Hey, when those kinds of catastrophes happen, you don't even have enough time to bend over and kiss your butt goodbye!

Cole said...

Wow, I also spend time in Green Bay and Door county over the years and I had no idea! Thanks for the very informative post. I was actually working up a small pity party myself so this is very serendipitous :)

K. Z. Snow said...

Glad I could help, Cole. ;-)

I lived in Door County for four years, but in the northern part, which was spared by the bay of Sturgeon Bay. I'd driven through the fire area many times, though -- like you, without knowing what had happened there over a century earlier.

K. Z. Snow said...

from Katrina Strauss (I don't know why Blogger didn't publish this):

Goodness, that's intense. I will have to read up on this one. I have a morbid fascination with disasters (as well as true crime), partly because I really am just morbid like that, but I'm also inspired by survival tales and the human spirit. Like you, it helps me put my own life and times into perspective.

Our pioneer ancestors put up with some hardcore, harrowing shit.

Have you read The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin? That one left quite an impression on me. I used Laskin's detailed stages of hypothermia (which I'd never read anywhere else) in a WIP.

Hey, this is how we writers get information -- through osmosis -- and sometimes life isn't pretty.

K. Z. Snow said...

Kitty, I just ordered that book! It was on my TBR.

Disaster and true crime stories shed a LOT of light on human nature. So yeah, they really fascinate me, too.

Katrina Strauss said...

I thought it was an interesting book about freaky weather patterns and the havoc they can wreak.

And thanks for recovering my comment! It showed as published on my end for a few minutes and then disappeared into the Blogger vortex even as it showed up in e-mail. Same thing happened last time I commented at your blog. It's a mystery...

K. Z. Snow said...

Maybe it's punishing you for those snarky blog posts you write and then delete. :-D

(Oh, wait. That can't be it. I do that too!)