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Wildfire History: The deadliest fire took place in Wisconsin

Posted at 10:32 PM, Nov 26, 2018
and last updated 2018-11-27 11:02:59-05

California's "Camp Fire" is officially contained and now recovery efforts are underway.

FEMA trailers are ready to be deployed for families who lost their homes in one of the most destructive wildfires in recent U.S. history. 85 people died and 250 listed as missing.

The California wildfire stands as a colossal catastrophe, but it is not the deadliest wildfire in American history.

That grim statistic belongs to Wisconsin.

"The Great Peshtigo Fire occurred on Oct. 8, 1871," said Scott Knickelbine. "Which just happened to be the same night as the Great Chicago Fire."

Knickelbine spent a lot of time researching The Great Peshtigo Fire for his book.

"The Peshtigo fire was the first firestorm in recorded history," said Knickelbine. "It's not that there wasn't any firestorms before that. This was the first event in which our science and our understanding of the weather and the material and the way fires behave."

It would have looked a lot like firestorms in California over summer - which actually produced fire tornadoes, which were deadly. 

"The best estimates in the Peshtigo fire range from 1,500 to 2,500," Knickelbine said. 

Just like the Camp Fire in California, it was very difficult to find or identify bodies in Peshtigo wildfire.

It burned more than 1.2 million acres in an area just north of Green Bay in Marinette County.

"Peshtigo at the time largest wood products manufacturing facility in the world and it employed hundreds of people," Knickelbine said. 

"The best eyewitness account would have been Father Peter Pernin," he also said. 

He was one of the people who ran down to the Peshtigo river and jumped into the river in order to survive.

Knickelbine wrote a book to focus on the stories and science of the Peshtigo fire for 4th-grade students.

"Scientist learned a great deal about what causes firestorms and how they behave," Knickelbine said. 

The exact cause of the Great Peshtigo Fire is unclear, but several things were in play.

Knickelbine says there were several smaller fires in the area, plus dry weather conditions and a large low-pressure system that stretched across most of the midsection of the country created high winds to push the fire.