On our way here, we passed through a small Wisconsin town named Peshtigo. On October 18, 1871 Peshtigo suffered one of the greatest fire disasters in history. Of 1700 people in the town, 800 (350 were burned so badly as to be unidentifiable) died and every building was destroyed. There was no warning -- one minute everything was fine, and the next everything was fire. The conflagration has even been described as "a tornado of fire." The air itself was so hot that the only way to survive was to get into the river, even though the water temperature was 50 degrees. Ironically, people died of hypothermia, inches away from heat so extreme that it would also have killed them.
Peshtigo's disaster went largely unnoticed by the world because it happened on the same night as the Great Chicago Fire -- the one erroneously attributed to "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow." Theories have been proposed that both were caused by the same thing -- a bolide from space that broke up, dropping burning fragments over hundreds of miles. But the museum guide assured us that the cause was much more local -- an extremely dry summer, a town that was stocked with dry wood to support its primary industry, a wooden ware factory, and a simple spark from who knows where.