“A bright light came up out of the south, directly in rear of the town, and the fierce gale bearing it on directly toward the doomed city” [Absolute Michigan]. This account referred to the Peshtigo fire which occurred in 1871 in October. Michigan.gov claims it is “the most devastating fire in U.S. history in terms of both lives and property lost.” A drought lasting many months preceded the event, leading to its intensity. The event caused 1,300 deaths and devastated over a million acres of land. Simultaneously, another series of fires hit Lower Michigan also destroying over a million acres of land.
In 1881, the Thumb region of Michigan was hit by yet another series of fires. Although the damage was not as wide spread as the 1871 fire, it was far more extreme. Michigan.gov claims, “it is estimated that this fire burned well over one million acres, cost 282 lives, and did more than $2,250,000 worth of damage.
Many problems led to these disasters and it is possible that some could have been avoided, if not at least lessened. For the Peshtigo fires, the smaller fires could have been treated and not amassed so strongly. A proper irrigation system could have made the drought less extreme and the fires less likely. Educating the public at the time about the dangers of forest fires, especially in times of drought, could have prevented some of the recklessness of individuals with fires. Regulations on land clearing through burning techniques definitely could have saved lives.
In 1903, a law was passed to prevent events such as these from happening. Fire wardens were established to monitor fires and distinguish fires when possible. They also were given the power to arrest citizens who did not adhere to fire safety laws. Thankfully with these laws in place, events of those magnitudes are far less likely to take place.