Historic Peshtigo Fire

The Peshtigo Fire of 1871. Image courtesy of The Great Peshtigo Fire of 1871

Historic Fires

Wildland fire is a natural process; it is not new. Wildfires, floods, earthquakes and similar natural occurrences are of much concern to society—primarily because we cannot control or completely protect ourselves against them.

Fire Happens

Wildland fires are relatively common. There are more than 100,000 fires in natural environments every year in the United States. As you read this, there are probably several fires burning somewhere in the country. Large wildland fires, however, are rare. There have been very few fires that occurred in North America in the last 150 years that could be described as unusually large.

One such large wildfire occurred in October 1825, burning from Maine through New Brunswick, Canada. A long drought set the stage for this exceptionally large wildfire. A group of loggers ignited a fire that soon burned out of their control. The fire burned 3 million acres of forest and killed more than 160 people.

people at the park with large white smoke clouds and bright blue sky

Visitors at Old Faithful in 1988 with smoke cloud billowing in background. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Another drought occurred during the summer of 1871 in North America. A violent wildfire struck the town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, killing 1,300 people in a single night. In total, more than 1 million acres were burned. The Peshtigo wildfire is considered the most devastating fire in United States history in terms of human lives and property lost. Wildfires such as these are the exception rather than the rule.

More recently, the 1988 fires in Wyoming and Montana burned across almost one million acres in and around Yellowstone National Park. Those fires, which burned for months brought fire and fire policies to the forefront of the public’s attention.