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The Deadliest Fire In American History Happened In A Place You Wouldn't Expect

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Record drought and heat are setting up another precedent-setting fire season in the western U.S., but the deadliest wildfire in American history happened in the Midwest - Wisconsin. This week, we're looking at fire risk outside of the western U.S. and how climate change may make it worse. NPR's Nathan Rott starts with the story of the fire the country forgot.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Smoke was so thick over the tree-lined Peshtigo River that birds were calling out in confusion. Fires had been burning for weeks, lit by farmers, rail workers and settlers, all cutting out their patch of the dense, green northern Wisconsin forest.

WENDI KAHL: There had been hardly any snow the winter before.

ROTT: It was unseasonably hot and dry. And on the night of October 8, 150 years ago, wind blasted the Midwest like a bellow.

(SOUNDBITE OF WIND BLOWING)

RON STROJNY: And it just took off like a tornado.

ROBERT COUVILLION: The sawdust and the dust and the dirt and the cinders were moving through the air.

ROTT: Some hid in water wells. Others ran for the river.

STROJNY: Cows, horses, people.

ROTT: Of those that made it...

KAHL: Some people died of hypothermia.

ROTT: Others...

COUVILLION: Drowned.

ROTT: While there are no recordings of the fire that night, we now know what it sounds like inside a whirl of flame.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIRE BURNING)

ROTT: By morning, at least 1,200 people were dead. To put that in perspective, the deadliest fire in recent American history, the 2018 Camp Fire in California, killed 85.

KAHL: Peshtigo was called the forgotten fire because it was.

ROTT: Wendi Kahl is a curator at the Peshtigo Fire Museum in the small town that was rebuilt around the river. She was one of the voices you just heard, along with local historians Ron Strojny and 95-year-old Robert "Cubby" Couvillion. Kahl says the Peshtigo fire was a footnote from the start, overshadowed by the more famous Great Chicago Fire, which burnt the same day. But it's not alone. The next two deadliest fires in American history were in Minnesota. Maine has burnt - South Carolina. The first wildland firefighting crew in the country was in upstate New York.

CRYSTAL KOLDEN: And there's a reason for that, right? There was a lot of fire in the Adirondacks.

ROTT: Crystal Kolden is a fire ecologist at the University of California Merced.

KOLDEN: It's just sort of forgotten in the modern era that fire can happen anywhere in this country. And with climate change, it is going to happen more frequently in places like the Northeast, in places like Appalachia, in places like the upper Midwest.

MIKE FOLGERT: Hopefully it doesn't smell too much like smoke or anything in here.

ROTT: Mike Folgert is the fire chief for the town of Peshtigo. And driving with him through the area's treetop sprawl - it's clear he has not forgotten.

FOLGERT: We have no hydrants out in this area. It's all rural. We have a lot of little subdivisions, homes here and there scattered.

ROTT: It's what firefighters like Folgert call a wildland urban interface - a messy middle where people and woods tangle. One in three homes in America are in places like this. And it's these areas that Folgert watches every spring.

FOLGERT: That's when our fire season occurs - from the time of snowmelt until the time of full green-up, which we're just - you know, we're just getting into that now.

ROTT: Most of the fires they're able to catch, thanks to heavy equipment, plentiful road access and early detection.

FOLGERT: Unless we get into a drought period. And that's what happened in 1871.

ROTT: The year of the Peshtigo fire. And while there hasn't been another fire of that scale in recent history, new research is showing the conditions he's talking about happen more frequently than most people think.

JED MEUNIER: So we have kind of wood stuffed in various places.

ROTT: It's a history written on the plate-sized slabs of wood cluttering Jed Meunier's lab.

MEUNIER: These were stumps that were harvested 150 years ago.

ROTT: Meunier is an ecologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, or DNR, and he's rewriting people's understanding of wildfire in places that people don't think of as fire-prone. He points to the slab's exposed rings.

MEUNIER: See the creases.

ROTT: Uh-huh.

MEUNIER: Fire, fire, fire, fire, fire, fire, fire, fire.

ROTT: Written next to each is a year.

MEUNIER: So it burned in 1664, for sure in 1683, 1700, 1715, 1726, '45 '63.

ROTT: Fire, Meunier says, was ubiquitous in this area, and not just when Native Americans purposely lit them, which they did frequently in most parts of the country to manage forests. More surprising, Meunier says, is the types of vegetation and trees that fueled those major fires.

MEUNIER: Really, that was a maple basswood beach landscape with a lot of mesic stuff like cedar, hemlock.

ROTT: Tree and forest types that people sometimes call asbestos forests, meaning they don't burn. That, Meunier says, should be a lesson from the Peshtigo fire.

MEUNIER: We should not fall into a complacency and call our forests asbestos forests.

ROTT: Would you say that there's the potential for a large-scale fire somewhere, like, in northeast Wisconsin, southern Wisconsin, wherever?

MEUNIER: Oh, absolutely there's the potential. And I think it's not if it happens. It's when.

ROTT: And two things exist today that could not only make a major fire like that more likely, but more dangerous. The first, we've hinted at - human-caused climate change.

AMANDA CARLSON: Hi, I'm Amanda Carlson. I'm a postdoctoral researcher at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

ROTT: Carlson focuses on the link between climate change and fires in the eastern U.S. And the first thing you need to know is that there's still a lot of uncertainty.

CARLSON: Because we don't have as much data to establish a baseline.

ROTT: Unlike fires in the western U.S., where scientists have established that fire season is now two months longer in some places because of climate change, researchers are just now looking at fires back east. But a few things are worrying.

CARLSON: On one hand, logically, we know things are getting warmer.

ROTT: And you don't need to be a fire scientist to know that increases the odds of fire. Another concern is less snowpack and earlier snowmelt.

CARLSON: If the snow melts earlier, that's a longer window before the green-up when things are dry.

ROTT: The other is rain.

CARLSON: Generally speaking, for most of the East, precipitation is expected to increase.

ROTT: But there will also be greater volatility. Short droughts could become more common, all of which means the conditions for major wildfire will exist more often in the eastern U.S. And people keep moving to forested areas. That's the second concern, which is where folks like Laura Hayes come in.

LAURA HAYES: Hello, sir. How are you?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I'm good. How are you?

ROTT: Hayes is with the Wisconsin DNR and works with homeowners living in high fire risk areas. And she says the first question she usually asks people is how many wildfires do you think there's been in the state of Wisconsin so far this year?

HAYES: And it's almost always under 10. Right now, as of the last time I looked, it was 675 so far this year.

ROTT: Which is why Hayes is out this day in a lakeside forested community talking to homeowners about the risk and what they can do.

HAYES: So what we're kind of looking at, sir, is we're looking at what your house is built with as well as what's around your home that could start on fire if a wildfire came up to your home.

ROTT: She's talking with homeowner Charles Roberts in a narrow strip of grass between woods and his two-story home.

HAYES: Consider getting rid of some of the mulch, especially closest to your home.

CHARLES ROBERTS: Not going to happen.

HAYES: So (laughter).

ROTT: That was Roberts, if you couldn't hear him, saying not going to happen.

HAYES: And we understand. This is totally a - we're just giving you information. What you choose to do is totally up to you.

ROTT: Hayes says most people are receptive to their message. Many communities have taken steps. But it's hard, she says, when people don't think about wildfire as a risk here. It's hard when people forget. Nathan Rott, NPR News, Peshtigo, Wis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.