Oct. 8, was the anniversary of a fire.
We have heard of devastating fires in the western United States this year — with nearly four million acres burned in California wildfires alone as of Oct. 4. According to California’s state fire chief Thom Porter, in Scott Pelly’s Oct. 5 “60 Minutes” report on CBS, that there are currently 10 fires in California that are 100,000 acres or more. Porter called them “career fires,” meaning you should only see one in a career. On Oct. 4, the Sacramento Bee reported 23 major wildfires burning in California.
There are many wildfire causes — lightning is a main cause. Others are human related. That is what is believed to have caused the Peshtigo Fire on Oct. 8, 1871: someone with a small debris fire, which was fanned by strong winds from an approaching cold front. The fire, which happened the same night as the Great Chicago Fire, killed 1,500 to 2,500 people and destroyed 2,400 square miles of land in northeast Wisconsin.
The Peshtigo Fire’s firestorms and fire tornadoes centered on Peshtigo, a lumber town. The fire reached Upper Michigan, traveled down and across the Bay of Green Bay and even hit Waupaca and Manitowoc counties on the south and Oconto and Marathon counties on the west.
Fr. John Peter Pernin, a missionary serving as pastor at St. Mary in Peshtigo and Our Lady of Lourdes in Marinette, was in Peshtigo that night. He described it in his memoir (“The Finger of God Was There”), “I chanced to look either to the right or left, before me or upwards, I saw nothing but flames. … I saw nothing but immense volumes of flames covering the firmament, rolling one over the other with stormy violence. …”
Fr. Pernin, like many, survived by jumping into the Peshtigo River.
In Brown County, Adele Brice gathered with local people for prayer at what is now the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion. People prayed the rosary all night as the fire drew closer. By morning, the land around chapel grounds was burned, but the fire had stopped at the fences. It was considered a miracle.
Since then, there has been an annual fire miracle celebration at the shrine on Oct. 9, including this year.
The anniversary of the Chicago Fire is marked annually by Fire Prevention Week in the United States and Canada: Oct. 4-10.
While we have not had many wildfires in Wisconsin this year — mostly brush fires — we have seen smoke from the fires out West, not only in California but Oregon, Washington, Colorado and even the Dakotas.
And we are entering fall, often a drier season with fallen leaves and dying grass.
Whatever your feelings on climate change and global warming, we must all learn about what causes wildfires. Nature — through drought, lightning, warmer winters and drier summers — plays a role. But so do humans. Every year, people burn autumn leaves, toss out a burning cigarette, leave a campfire improperly doused or even — as with one of the large California fires — use fireworks. (“Gender reveal” fireworks sparked the El Dorado Fire, in San Bernardino County, which is still burning and which has destroyed more than 14,000 acres.)
Be careful. If you camp, be sure your fire is out. If you have a backyard fire pit, have necessary permits and know how to extinguish fires properly — each county and municipality has restrictions, see the state Department of Natural Resources restrictions map: dnr.wi.gov/topic/forestfire/restrictions.asp. Be careful with cigarettes and fireworks. Don’t burn leaves when in dry or windy conditions. Have fire extinguishers in your home and car and learn how to use them.
And pray. Pray for those who have lost their homes or with homes at risk. Pray for those who have died. Pray for firefighters. One saint to call upon is St. Florian, who fought fires in ancient Rome before being martyred in A.D. 304.