In the early morning of June 30, 1908, natives of remote Siberia witnessed a strange flashing in the sky. Minutes later a massive explosion ripped across the tundra, flattening trees and killing wildlife across approximately 2,000 square kilometers of wilderness. The explosion was the equivalent of 3 to 5 megatons of TNT – about 300 times stronger than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The exact cause of the so-called Tunguska event has long been a matter of debate, though most scientists now think it was caused by an above-ground detonation of a part of either an asteroid or a comet. However, conspiracy theories abound as with any major event such as this. No human casualties were reported.
On May 27, 1962, workers at the dump in Centralia, Pennsylvania lit a fire to burn up some trash – a normal part of their routine. However, that day was to be anything but normal. As the workers set the fire, gases rising to the surface from the massive coal seam that lay just below the men caught fire which then caused the coal itself to be ignited. Despite the best efforts of local and state officials, the fuel source – the coal itself – was just too large for the fire to be brought under control. As of today, fifty-three years later, the fire still burns underground. It has killed the majority of vegetation in Centralia and the noxious fumes released by the blaze have caused the vast majority of the once-thriving town to move on. Today, there is little left of Centralia – much of it has been demolished by officials to keep squatters from moving into the abandoned buildings. Scientists expect the fire to continue burning for up to 250 more years!
Featured Image: “Smoke Rising from the Centralia Fire.” By Mredden at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Krajick, Kevin. “Fire in the Hole.” Smithsonian Magazine. May 2005.
On May 19, 1780, New England residents looked around in confusion. It was noon. Why were the birds singing their evening songs? Why was it getting dark? What on Earth was going on? As the people talked, they decided that a big storm must be near. So they waited, and nothing came. Now they started seriously worrying and in good eighteenth century fashion, decided that this must mean the world was coming to an end!
What caused this strange darkness? It was not until the early 21st century that we had a probable answer. A University of Missouri study on Ontario trees found evidence for a massive forest fire in the province during the Spring of 1780. As has happened on a few occasions since, large Canadian forest fires can have weird effects on weather in the Northeastern United States. We have not had another event quite like the Dark Day, but as recent as 2002, a fire in Quebec caused major haze across the region.
Ross, John. “Dark Day of 1780.” American Heritage. Fall 2008.
Recent headlines have been dominated by news from a usually obscure corner of Canada – Fort McMurray, Alberta. The town has been absolutely decimated by a massive forest fire that has burned (as of Tuesday May 10) over 500,000 acres of land and forced some 80,000 residents to flee the flames. Luckily, no one has been killed as a direct result of the fire.
However, history has been littered with many examples of fire-related tragedies with great lost of life with cities like London, Rome, and Chicago all burning at some time or another. When measured in terms of loss of life, the single costliest wildfire in United States history is the often-forgotten Peshtigo Fire in Wisconsin. On October 8, 1871 (which happened to be the same night as the famous Chicago Fire), a forest fire broke out near the logging camp outside of Peshtigo, Wisconsin near Lake Michigan. The fire ravaged about 1.2 million acres of forest in Wisconsin and Michigan. It killed somewhere between 1, 500 and 2,500 people, mostly in Peshtigo itself.
Featured Image. “Forest Fire.” By BLM – http://www.blm.gov/photos/netpub/server.np?find&catalog=catalog&site=BLM&field=Keywords&op=contains&value=wildfire&sorton=Cataloged&&template=details.np&offset=77, Public Domain.
Image 1. “Peshtigo Fire Museum.” By self – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5.
Holbrook, Stewart. “Fire Makes Wind: Wind Makes Fire.” American Heritage. August 1956.
La Corte, Rachel and Robert Gillies. “Alberta PM says Fort McMurray saved from worst of wildfire.” Washington Post. 9 May 2016.
Wisconsin Historical Society. Wisconsin Local History & Biography Articles; “History of the Peshtigo Fire.” Peshtigo Times. October 6, 1921.